A Malaysian state’s decision to allow child marriages caused an outcry Wednesday, with rights groups condemning new rules that allow Muslim girls below 16 years to wed.
The decision by the Islamic religious council in southern Malacca state has been billed as an attempt to curb premarital sex and baby dumping, after a string of cases of newborns being abandoned.
“Child marriage amounts to paedophilia. We should not condone child marriages,” said Ivy Josiah, executive director of leading activist group Women’s Aid Organisation.
Malacca chief minister Mohamad Ali Rustam reportedly said that marriages for Muslims below the current minimum age of 16 years for females and 18 for males would be allowed with the permission of parents and religious courts.
Ali Rustam, who is the chairman of the influential state Islamic council, said the plan would reduce the number of cases of babies born out of wedlock and cut incidents of adultery.
“It is a practical move in preventing cases of unwed teenage mothers and other social problems,” he was was quoted as saying by the New Straits Times newspaper Wednesday.
The report said that in the first six months of the year 174 Muslim women gave birth outside wedlock in the state. All were below 20 years old.
In Malaysia, Muslims make up about 60 per cent of the 28 million population and are subject to religious Sharia law which operates in parallel with the civil legal system.
Josiah said that Malaysia recognises those aged under 18 years as children, and that allowing them to marry early would deprive them of an education and the right to choose a partner.
“It is a knee-jerk reaction. It is really a regressive move. It is turning back the clock. This man (the chief minister) should resign,” she said. Shahrizat Abdul Jalil, the minister for women, family and community development, said that underage marriage was “morally and socially unacceptable”.
“Placing the heavy burden and responsibility of parenthood on children can deprive them of their rights to a full and harmonious development,” she said.