• Siti Munawirah Mustaffa | Communications Assistant, IOM Malaysia

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – *Haseena was just 9 years old when she was forced to drop out of school. Raised in a community that still regards menstruation as a taboo, Haseena’s parents were concerned about the possibility of having her first period while in class. They therefore believed it was best that she drops out of school and stays at home.

At the tender age of 12, a year after she actually hit puberty, her marriage was proposed by the family. Potential suitors were invited to their home, all of whom were adult men aged at least 20 something or above.

“My parents never viewed my education as important. They told me I was already mature and of marriageable age, leaving me no reason to continue my studies,” says Haseena, who is the eldest amongst seven siblings.

Haseena’s story, unfortunately, is not an isolated one, particularly within the Rohingya community in Malaysia, which makes up 58% of the refugee population currently registered with UNHCR. In a similar experience, 14-year-old *Asha had to stop her schooling in 2023 simply because her parents already regarded her as a “grown-up” – too old to continue being a student, yet old enough to carry her family’s responsibilities.

Like Haseena, being the eldest child means she is expected to help her mother around the house, while the father goes out to earn money for the family until she is married off.  

Asha loves mathematics and aspires to teach the subject somewhere in the future. @ IOM/Siti Munawirah

“In our culture, women and girls are supposed to only stay at home, while boys and men can go anywhere as they please,” Asha remarks wistfully, her eyes looking down at her feet as she rocks herself slowly on a swing chair in the backyard of her family’s home.  

Perceptive of their circumstances, teachers at Sekolah Islamiyah, the school where both girls used to study, encouraged them to sign up for Kuntum Sayang – an online learning platform where girls like Haseena and Asha can still have opportunities for education and create better lives for themselves. 

“We receive quite a number of cases of girls as young as 9-years-old being asked to discontinue their schooling after having reached puberty, with their parents no longer wanting them to mingle with boys,” explains Husna, who works as a teacher at Sekolah Islamiyah. 

“To address this issue, we launched Kuntum Sayang, a programme that serves as an education alternative, specifically targeting girls who are not allowed to physically go to school. All sessions are conducted online, where girls are taught with a wide range of topics, including knowing the body, understanding their rights and responsibilities, the environment, citizenship as well as communications,” she adds.  

Despite the well-meaning intention, Kuntum Sayang was initially met with resistance from many parents when it was kickstarted in 2021. It took Haseena over a year to tearfully convince her family to allow her participation, as she was unwilling to wed at such a young age.  

“Originally, we wanted to conduct physical classes just for the girls. We even offered free transportation services for them to go to school and return home, yet the parents still refused. Ultimately, we resorted to holding the classes online, to which they approved,” says Husna. 

Three students, including Haseena and Asha, are currently enrolled in the programme, with classes conducted in the evening twice a week. Almost three years since Kuntum Sayang was launched, the participation rate has been fluctuating as more girls were married off, shifting their priorities towards their new families.

Tackling child marriage has been an ongoing battle for many community schools in Malaysia like Sekolah Islamiyah, with poverty and social norms being the major factors that leave desperate refugee families with no other options but to relieve their distress by marrying off their young daughters.  

According to a report by the Malaysian Statistics Department, every year, at least 1,500 children fall victim to child marriage in the country. More alarmingly, many of the marriages involving children were neither registered nor recorded, particularly within the refugee population.  

Robbing children of their childhood, child marriage carries lifelong consequences to young girls, including greater vulnerability to sexual and domestic violence, as well as increased medical and mental health problems, amongst others. 

Despite the challenges, teachers at Sekolah Islamiyah are still adamant in helping girls like Haseena and Asha, and occasional visits to their houses, for instance, are made to check on their wellbeing. In return, the girls are determined to gain as much as they can to better themselves. 

Robbing children of their deserved childhood, child marriage carries grave, lifelong consequences to young girls. @ IOM/Siti Munawirah

“I really love mathematics, and I aspire to teach the subject in the future,” says Asha. Her passion for the subject is seconded by Husna, who, out of her own passion for teaching, has been highly observant of the needs and progress of every student she teaches at Sekolah Islamiyah. 

“I believe women and girls should have the same rights and opportunities as men and boys in terms of education and employment. If there is any piece of advice that I can share with other women and girls out there, it is this: study diligently and learn to love yourself first before you love others,” says Haseena. 

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the individuals.  

This story was written by Siti Munawirah Mustaffa, IOM Malaysia Communications Assistant,  

SDG 1 - No Poverty
SDG 4 - Quality Education
SDG 5 - Gender Equality
SDG 10 - Reduced Inequalities