Malaysian law says a woman has to be 16 and a man 18 before they can marry. But the state of Malacca is now allowing children under 16 to wed with the consent of an Islamic court. The move has triggered a debate.
Women's groups have criticized teenage marriage
Shahrizat Abdul Jalil, the Malaysian Minister for Women, Family and Community Development recently said she thought it was "socially and morally unacceptable" for children below the age of 16 to get married.
However, the state government of Malacca and its Islamic Religious Council says it is allowing teenage marriage in order to address certain social problems and curb premarital sex.
Just over 60 percent of the Malaysian population is Muslim
Recent cases have shown that some babies are being abandoned by their unwed mothers.
"We are trying to avoid the dumping of babies," Mr Daud, the press secretary to the Chief Minister of Malacca Mohamed Ali Rustam, told Deutsche Welle. "There have been several cases of this and of rape. That is the main reason why we have introduced this. If they get married there will be no problem. It is legal. But they must get approval from the court."
The state authorities are allowing teenagers to marry only with the consent of the parents and of the Islamic court. They think that the move will help reduce the number of babies born out of wedlock as well as incidents of adultery.
According to a recent government report, 174 Muslim women in Malacca have given birth outside wedlock already in 2010. They are all under 20.
Women's groups angered
However, women's groups have criticized the authorities' justification. Ivy Josiah, the executive director of Women's Aid Organization, is angry: "The obsession here is more about the sin of having sex outside marriage."
"It seems to me that the Islamic Council is not worried about young children having sex with much older men. They are in fact in a way encouraging pedophilia. There are reports that a nine year old got married to a 40 year old and of an 8 year old who married a 30 year old."
She says that allowing children to get married will not solve the problem. "Women's groups are dead against this and very upset. The law must not have a provision allowing child marriage. Right now it's very chaotic because they are making announcements without studying the issue."
The authorities are worried that children born out of wedlock might be abandoned
Schools should accommodate pregnant teenagers
The Malacca authorities have announced they will open a special school for Muslim girls who become pregnant out of wedlock. Ivy Josiah agrees with the idea of "a separate school to facilitate their giving birth but not with the condition that the girls must get married."
She adds that "even normal schools and private schools should accommodate pregnant teenagers."
An NGO recently set up Malaysia's first so-called "baby hatch" for unwanted babies, including those of unmarried teenage mothers.
However, although women's activists welcome such initiatives, they argue that prevention is better and insist that adequate sex education in schools is crucial.
Author: Jaisu Bhullar
Editor: Anne Thomas