11-year-old Thai wife of Malaysian man rescued

Bangkok: An 11-year-old bride to a Malaysian man 30 years her senior has returned to her native Thailand, where she is under the care of the local social welfare department.

Ayu, who is being identified only by her nickname for her protection, was married in June as the third wife of Che Abdul Karim Che Abdul Hamid, a Muslim rubber trader from the northern Malaysian state of Kelantan. The case has provoked soul-searching in Malaysia, where the prevalence of child marriage belies the Southeast Asian nation's modern outlook.

Siti Nor Azila, the second wife of Che Abdul Karim Che Abdul Hamid, with her two daughters in her family’s home in Gua Musang town in Kelantan, Malaysia.

Photo: New York Times

Earlier this month, Thai officials picked up Ayu and her parents in a Thai town on the border with Malaysia, said Surapol Prommool, governor of Narathiwat province in southern Thailand. She is now being cared for in a Thai government institution by an all-female staff of social workers, psychologists and doctors.

Che Abdul Karim has not been allowed to visit her there, Surapol said.

"For us, the most important thing now is to treat her mental condition," he said. "We are working to make her calm and feel better."

Malaysian law allows for child marriage in certain cases. Muslims, who are bound by Shariah law in many civil affairs, can wed below the age of 16 if they receive permission from a religious court. Non-Muslims between the ages of 16 and 18 can marry with the consent of state-level ministers.

A visitor is silhouetted at the Crystal Mosque in Kuala Terengganu, Terengganu, Malaysia. The country allows child marriages in some cases.

Photo: Bloomberg

Last year, Malaysia passed a law against sexual grooming, in which an adult creates an emotional bond with a child for the purpose of sexual exploitation. An effort to ban child marriage, however, failed. One legislator from the then governing party, who had also served as a Shariah court judge, said a 9-year-old girl could be marriageable if she had gone through puberty.

But Malaysia's new government, which took power in May, has said that it is committed to combating underage marriage, which is most common among younger children from the country's Muslim Malay and indigenous populations.

"We want to raise the age of marriage to 18 years and above," said Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, Malaysia's Deputy Prime Minister and minister of women, family and community development. "We have the political will to do that, but I have to engage all the stakeholders. That takes some time."

Wan Azizah said that the Attorney-General's office is currently investigating whether Che Abdul Karim violated the country's laws against sexual grooming, as well as other rules governing child marriage. While Che Abdul Karim said he would not "touch" Ayu until she was 16, the pair went on a holiday together to a Malaysian hill retreat, according to a social media post seen by his second wife.

Last month, Che Abdul Karim was fined $US450 ($618) by a Kelantan Shariah court for marrying Ayu in Thailand without the court's permission.

Child advocates say the religious court's judgment was a mere slap on the wrist. They have accused the Malaysian government of being slow to wrap up its investigation into Che Abdul Karim's third marriage. (Muslims in Malaysia are allowed four wives.)

"He remains a threat not just to this child but other vulnerable children from poor families, as well," said Latheefa Koya, executive director of Lawyers for Liberty, a Malaysian human rights and legal organisation. "The failure to take a decisive action is a signal to potential paedophiles that they can safely operate in Malaysia."

Ayu's abrupt transfer to Thailand has also raised eyebrows.

"Why is the child, being the key prosecution witness, suddenly whisked off to Thailand?" Latheefa asked. "Sending the child off to the Thais is surely a transparent attempt to close the case and get rid of the problem."

The girl's family home in Gua Musang town in Kelantan, Malaysia.

Photo: New York Times

Wan Azizah said that given Ayu's nationality, it made sense for her to return to Thailand.

"She is a Thai citizen, and the Thais want to take care of her wellbeing," Wan Azizah said. "For the best interests of the child, we have to separate them. Our officers got together to give our support for how best to do that."

Although Ayu was born in Thailand, she has lived most of her life in northern Malaysia, where her father struggled to make ends meet as a rubber tapper. The family lived in a wooden shack with no running water, and Ayu did not attend school.

She does not speak Thai, and it is not clear whether her parents have the means to support themselves should they remain in Thailand.

Ayu's marriage was conducted in Thailand, with her parents and a friend of Che Abdul Karim present as a witness. Surapol, the governor of Narathiwat, noted that Che Abdul Karim had a leadership role at his mosque in Malaysia and said that the union appeared to be religiously sound.

He said it was premature to engage in speculation about whether charges should be pressed against Che Abdul Karim for taking an 11-year-old wife.

"The legal case can wait because there is no expiration date on that," Surapol said. "Let's take care of the girl first and return her to a normal child's life."

New York Times

Most Viewed in World