KUCHING: The federal government should not delay in getting the amendment to Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) Act which institutes legal safeguards against unilateral conversions of minors passed in Parliament.
In making this call, PKR Women national vice-president Vook Shiak Ni said the passing of the amendment is of utmost importance to the children, especially regarding religious freedom for children of the many mixed marriages in the country.
“The passing of the amendment is important to resolve issues in court involving spouses who converted to Islam and the religious status of children of divorced couples. But it seems that we are coming to the end of the first Parliamentary session this year and the Bill has yet to be tabled for the second reading although it is in the list,” Voon said yesterday.
Ipoh Barat MP M Kulasegaran was reported to have said on March 26 that the Bill being pushed down in the Parliament Order Paper was proof that the government was not interested in amending the law related to marriages.
“The above Bill was to be debated this week as it was listed as No.4 in the Order Paper of Parliament for the last two weeks. Now in the third week of the Parliamentary session, it has been pushed down to No.8. This clearly indicates there is no priority in getting this Bill passed,” Kulasegaran said.
Voon said apart from the Bill to widen the definition of rape to include bodily and non-bodily objects, she was hopeful that the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) (Amendment) Bill 2016 will be passed as soon as possible in Parliament.
She argued that the freedom of religion should be strictly adhered to as enshrined in Article 11 of the Federal Constitution and that children of interfaith marriages be accorded the religious freedom to choose their faith.
“Freedom of religion is enshrined in the Federal Constitution. Article 11 (of the Federal Constitution) provides that every person has the right to profess and to practise his or her own religion,” Voon pointed out.
She is also hopeful that families of mixed marriages can do away with years of legal battle to defend the right concerning legal safeguards against unilateral conversions.
Citing the case of M Indira Gandhi and S Deepa as an example of unilateral conversion that had became controversial in recent years, she said both faced lengthy court battles to gain custody and also reverse the unilateral conversion of their children by their Muslim convert ex-husbands.
Sarawak Women for Women Society (SWWS) vice-president Ann Teo, when contacted, said they would certainly urge for the Bill to be read and debated as soon as possible, if indeed it is pushed further down in the Parliament Order Papers.
“In a multi-religious Malaysia when marriages fail, at least the law can address and prevent further acrimony and heartache regarding upbringing of children in their religious education/faith resulting from the unilateral and perhaps vindictive actions of the divorcing spouses,” Teo said.
The Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) (Amendment) Bill 2016 was tabled by Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Azalina Othman for the first reading at the Dewan Rakyat on Nov 21 last year — the highlight of the amendment being the inclusion of a new Section 88A that explicitly states that both parties in a civil marriage must agree for the conversion of a minor to Islam.
Specifically addressing the ‘Religion of a Child’ in civil marriages where one spouse has converted to Islam, the amendment also said that the child will remain in the religion of the parents at the time of marriage until the child is 18 years old, when he may choose his own religion.
The proposed amendment also said that if the parties to the marriage professed different religions prior to one spouse’s conversion to Islam, “a child of the marriage shall be at liberty to remain in the religion of either one of the prior religions of the parties before the conversion to Islam”.
The amendment also states that if a person who has converted to Islam dies before the non-Muslim civil marriage is dissolved, the matrimonial assets shall be distributed by court “to interested parties”.
The distribution will take into account contributions made by interested parties in money, property or works towards the acquisition of the matrimonial assets.
The proposed amendments, if passed, shall also be used retrospectively for any cases still pending in courts under this Act.
The problems with unilateral child conversions persisted despite a cabinet ruling prohibiting the practice, due to the lack of legal weight behind the decision. The federal government had since then been pressed to codify its decision into law.