13-year-old girl’s escape from forced marriage highlights the neglected issue of Thailand’s child brides

The Chiang Rai-based NGO Center for Girls has revealed that they have managed to help a 13-year-old girl escape a forced marriage with a 50-year-old man after the girl contacted them in March 2018.

Chitraporn Vanaspong, Chairperson of the Center’s Board, posted on Facebook on 8 November that the Center received a note from a young girl, who for reasons of privacy will be referred to as Nu Na, asking for help as she said that she was being forced by her parents to marry a 50-year-old man as soon as she finishes Year 6 (Pathom 6).

“I don’t want to get married yet. I want to keep going to school,” said Nu Na’s letter. “My mom is forcing me to get married, but I don’t want to. I want a scholarship so that I can keep going to school. I want to go to school outside. Help me. I want to go to school.”

The letter from Nu Na to the Center for Girls

Nu Na’s close friend had taken part in a Center workshop on children’s rights in which they talked about child marriage as a violation of children’s rights. According to Chitraporn, Nu Na’s friend told her to seek help and was the one who delivered the letter – a very clear demonstration of what can come from educating children about their rights.

Nunnaree Luangmoi, founder and director for the Center for Girls, said that Nu Na’s family had financial problems, and that her parents owed the man money. Nunnaree said that the man may have given Nu Na’s parents the ultimatum that if they couldn’t pay him back, they should give him their daughter instead, which could be why Nu Na was being forced to marry him.

However, Nunnaree said that the Center does not have the authority to separate children from their parents, and in Nu Na’s case, the government said that they could not help because nothing had happened to her yet. Since they cannot take Nu Na away from her family, a team from the Center went to see the man, who lives in a different district, because the assistant village chief told them that the man was regularly visiting Nu Na. He had bought her a mobile phone, and Nu Na’s mother had been urging him to take her out.

Chitraporn said that the team that went to talk to the man included a police officer and an officer from a children and family shelter with them. They took a copy of the Criminal Code and explained to the man the legal penalties he would be facing if he married the child. Chitraporn said that the man denied everything, saying that he did not think about Nu Na in that way, that he only liked her and bought her a cell phone because she was a good student.

At that time, Nu Na was 13 years old, a minor under Thai law and below the age of consent. According to Section 317 of the Thai Criminal Code, whoever, without reasonable cause, takes away a child not yet over fifteen years of age from the parent, guardian or person looking after such child, shall be punished with imprisonment of three to fifteen years and a fine of six thousand to thirty thousand baht. Moreover, Section 279 also states that committing “indecent” acts on a child younger than fifteen, whether with the child’s consent or not, carries a prison sentence of not more than ten years or a fine of not more than twenty thousand baht, or both.

Section 277 also states that whoever has sexual intercourse with a girl not yet over fifteen years of age and not being his own wife, whether the girl consents or not, shall be punished with imprisonment of four to twenty years and fined eight thousand to forty thousand baht. If the offence is committed against a girl not yet over thirteen years of age, the offender shall be punished with imprisonment of seven to twenty years and a fine fourteen thousand to forty thousand baht, or imprisonment for life.

Students during a discussion on gender in a Center for Girls workshop (Source: Center for Girls)

According to Chitraporn, one of Nu Na’s older sisters had already been married off. Chitraporn also said that the parents were violent toward their children, and that the parents insisted that because Nu Na is their child, they can do anything with her. They have been talking to the parents for several months.

Finally, when the Center was organizing a children’s camp in the village, Nu Na ran to them and asked to go with them, saying she is not staying there anymore. At that point, they had to bring Nu Na to the Center, before working on sending her to a children’s shelter and talking to the parents.

Despite the difficulties, they were able to convince the parents to let Nu Na leave home and go to school. Nu Na has now been referred to a shelter, where she now lives and has transportation to go to a nearby school.

Chitraporn said that when they visited Nu Na 2 months ago, she seemed to be doing fine. She said that she does not miss home, and that she wanted to continue studying until she finishes Year 9 (Mathayom 3), and then she will think about what to do next.

Chitraporn said that Nu Na is smart, but she does not want to pursue higher education. She wants to finish school quickly so that she could earn money to care for her family.

The hidden problem of Thailand’s child brides

Nu Na is not the first girl faced with being forced into a marriage, and she is not likely to be the last. In June 2018, reports of the marriage of an 11-year-old girl from Narathiwat, referred to as “Ayu” in a report in The Guardian, to a 41-year-old Malaysian man triggered a public outcry in Malaysia after one of his wives lodged a complaint with the police, making the union public.

Ayu is a Thai citizen but lived with her parents in Malaysia. Malaysian rubber scrap dealer Che Abdul Karim Che Hamid reportedly married her as his third wife in Thailand in a Muslim wedding ceremony which skirted both Thai and Malaysian marriage laws. He reportedly already had two wives and six children before he married the girl, and claimed that his marriage was lawful and approved by the girl’s parents.

However, Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Wan Azizah Wan Ismail said that the marriage was illegal as it had not been approved by a Shariah court, and that officials have launched an investigation to see whether Ayu’s parents agreed to the marriage because of their poverty.

According to Wan Azizah, the mother asked the man not to consummate the marriage until the girl turned 16, something the Imam who married them also made him promise, but reportedly to no effect, according to medical tests.

Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Wan Azizah Wan Ismail (Source: BenarNews)

According to United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), child marriage, early union, and teen pregnancy continue to rise in some Southeast Asian countries and are not falling rapidly enough in others, which represent significant challenges to young persons’ rights and sustainable development that governments and civil society organisations are seeking to urgently address in partnership with UN agencies.

UNFPA reported that the percentage of women in the region aged 20 to 24 who were married or in a union before 18 ranges from 35.4% in Laos PDR to 11% in Vietnam.

In Thailand, a 2017 Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS) of 14 provinces conducted by UNICEF and the National Statistical Office (NSO) found that, on average, 4% of Thai women are married by the age of 15 and 23% are married by the age of 18. The survey also found that women are more likely than men to marry before age 15 and 18.

Thailand's child marriage rates (Source: Girlsnotbrides)

Nunnaree said that there are many factors that lead to a child being married off. She said that in some families, the parents often have many children so that they can help with work and household chores. She also said that sometimes the parents cannot afford to send their children to school after they finish Year 6 (Pathom 6). Even though there are no tuition fees, not every village has a middle or high school, and so travel, food, and clothing represent costs which some families cannot afford.

According to a report by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) and the World Health Organization (WHO), child, early, and forced marriage is detrimental to child development, both to the child bride herself and to any children born to the young mother.

Girls who marry at a young age has a higher risk of violence and abuse, persistent poverty, and are especially vulnerable to sexual and reproductive health problems, as well as complications in pregnancy and childbirth. They are more likely to experience domestic violence and forced sexual relations, and are often missed out on opportunities for empowerment and education.

“In the Northern region, like I said, there are many factors which forced the parents or family to do this. Really, they don’t want to do it,” Nunnaree told Prachatai. “But there are beliefs and a mindset that it could be a good thing if the child is married to a good man, or a rich man who is older, or that the child would then be able to improve the family’s situation. There are those kinds of ideas.”

“We have not been collecting statistics. We only have the information when someone asks for help. Even if it’s not common, if it happens to a child, it is still considered a serious violation,” said Nunnaree.

There are legal mechanisms available to invalidate child marriage. Section 1503 of the Civil and Commercial Code states that an application can be made to the court for cancellation of a marriage if the spouses have not complied with Sections 1448, 1505, 1506, 1507 and 1509.

Section 1448 specifies the minimum age of marriage at 17. Section 1507 states that a marriage is voidable if it is made by the spouses on account of duress to such an extent that without it the marriage would not have been made. And Section 1509 states that parental consent is required for a minor to be married.

Section 1458 also states that a marriage can only take place if both parties “agree to take each other as husband and wife, and such agreement must be declared publicly before the Registrar in order to have it recorded by the Registrar.” According to Section 1495, marriage made without spousal consent as required by Section 1458 shall be void.

According to the Bangkok Post, Ayu was sent back to Thailand from Malaysia in August 2018 and was placed under the care of the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security.

Nevertheless, the problem remains. “The biggest problem with child marriage in Thailand is that nobody wants to talk about it – not the Islamic Council, not the imams and not the government,” Wannakanok Pohitaedaoh, who was forced into a violent marriage at 13 and now runs the Luk Riang children’s shelter in Narathiwat, told The Guardian. “It has always been swept under the rug, and that’s where they want it to stay.”

Children’s rights activist Anchana Heemmina said that the Thai government does not want to deal with the issue, pushing responsibility back to the provincial Islamic Councils. “They don’t want to provoke the communities,” Anchana told The Guardian, adding that their reluctance is rooted in sensitivity over self-determination for Islamic communities in the deep south of Thailand, which means that any policy implemented by the government in Bangkok can become a cause of friction.

But in December 2018, the Straits Times reported that the Central Islamic Council of Thailand (CICOT) has issued a new regulation which bans children under the age of 17 from marriage. The new regulation ensures that local mosques cannot grant permission for marriages involving anyone aged under 17 unless an Islamic court gives permission or the parents sign a document approving the marriage at the provincial Islamic committee office or at a local police station.

Back in Chiang Rai, despite Nu Na’s case being considered a major success, the Center for Girls did not receive much support in their attempt to help her. Chitraporn said that the provincial child protection service initially did not want to take Nu Na away from her family, but wanted the Center to monitor the situation, since the service operated on the principle that it would be easier to take the child away “if she has already been raped.”

This goes against what the Center felt was right, because at that time the man was still visiting Nu Na, so they wrote a letter to the Director-General of the Department of Children and Youth in Bangkok. Chitraporn said that the Director-General redirected their letter to the provincial office, telling them to take care of the case. The provincial child protection service now became annoyed that the Center had taken the matter to their superior instead of discussing it “in [their] own province”. Chitraporn said that intervention from the central government is limited, since the case workers are personnel at the provincial level.

Chitraporn also said that the family did not understand why the Center was “messing with their family’s affairs.” When they were negotiating with Nu Na’s parents so that they would allow her to go live elsewhere and attend school, her mother became angry and swept dust and cobweb all over the team who went to talk to the parents. Chitraporn said that, seeing that the mother was angry, the community leaders left the representative from the Center and a police officer to face Nu Na’s parents alone while they waited in front of the house.

Chitraporn said that community leaders agreed with the Center’s attempt to challenge the parents’ authority but often keep their distance. She said that they often have the mindset that they cannot interfere in a family’s affairs and that the parents can do anything to their children, so they rarely exercise their legal authority as child protection officers.

Meanwhile, the man who Nu Na was going to be forced to marry went to the subdistrict headman after his meeting with the team from the Center and complained to the headman about why they were “meddling in his business.”

Nevertheless, Chitraporn said that one of the factors that led to the case’s success was Nu Na’s own strength. She said that Nu Na has a very clear idea of what she wants in life. Even though she felt guilty at first that she may have been ungrateful to her parents, when the team from the Center explained her rights to her, Nu Na understood and did not back down.

Chitraporn said that what made Nu Na’s case a major success is that they were able to help her escape before anything happened, which means that they were successful in their prevention and monitoring strategy. She said that if the child had already been violated, it takes a lot of funds and time in order to work on remedies and the healing process for the child, so it is better to prevent than to cure.

In 2017, Plan International conducted research on child, early, and forced marriage in 14 Asian countries, including Thailand. They recommended that the following actions be taken in order to tackle child, early, and forced marriage across Asia:

  1. Strength regional and national programmes and policies to address all sustainable development goals (SDGs), including SDG5, which is to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls, with equal urgency
  2. Develop and implement effective legislation to prohibit and discourage child marriage
  3. Strengthen civil registration and vital statistics systems
  4. Improve girls’ access to quality primary and secondary education
  5. Support economic and livelihood opportunities for young people, especially girls
  6. Provide age-appropriate sexual and reproductive health and rights information and services
  7. Engage and work with parents, teachers, community leaders, and faith-based organisations
  8. Support boys and girls who are already married
  9. Involve girls and boys in decision-making processes that affect them.