This comes in response to public opposition to comments made by the chief minister of the state of Malacca, encouraging underage marriages. Datuk Shahrizat Abdul Jalil, the federal minister for women, family and community development, says child marriages are morally and socially unacceptable. She says the government wants to bring laws in line with United Nations human rights treaties which Malaysia has ratified.
Presenter: Claudette Werden
Ivy Josiah, Women's Aid Organisation; Datuk Haji Harusanni Zakaria, Perak Mufti Council; Yasmin Masidi, Sisters of Islam; Datuk Shahrizat Abdul Jalil, minister for women, family and community development, Malaysia
WERDEN: Under Malaysian law, Muslim couples have to be tested for HIV/AIDS before they can get married. Ivy Josiah from Malaysia's Women's Aid Organisation says these tests have alerted women's groups to the number of underage girls getting married and she is concerned the shariah law allowing young girls to wed is encouraging paedophilia.
JOSIAH: There have been marriages between nine year olds and 40 year olds and ten year olds and 30 year olds and so when parents applied for marriage we found out that quite a number of applicants who took the mandatory test were children. There were shockingly 32 girls under ten years of age who took the premarital HIV test in 2009, in the 15-19 year old group 1,911 boys and 6,815 girls were tested. This is not right - even though it's provided for in the Islamic shariah law.
WERDEN: The organisation has recently established Malaysia's first baby hatch to accept abandoned infants, following an increase in the number of reported cases of babies being abandoned. Datuk Haji Harusanni Zakaria, head of the Mufti Council in Perak state, says he understands why Malacca's Islamic Religious Council has decided to make it easier for young Muslim girls to marry.
ZAKARIA: In Malaysia, we don't marry the girl underage, but this is different case, this is because the girls are already pregnant, this is according to our religion, this is to save her and the child.
WERDEN: The state government of Malacca is also proposing a school for pregnant teenagers which has raised concerns that segregating them will lead to them being stigmatised by Malaysian society. Yasmin Masidi of the Sisters of Islam says the moves are a hasty reaction to what is primarily a health and education issue.
MASIDI: As far as Sisters in Islam is concerned, we feel the absolute minimum age to marry is 18 years, is really the bare minimum, our position really is that of the Koran, marriageable age is linked to sound judgement and maturity of mind, puberty alone is really not sufficient.
WERDEN: Women's groups in Malaysia are lobbying the country's federal government to make child marriages illegal and to raise the minimum age for marriage to 18. Malaysia's women and family minister, Datuk Shahrizat Abdul Jalil, says the government is reviewing the laws. But she admits the process will require a widespread education campaign.
SHAHRIZAT: We can make the proposals, but at the end of the day it's up to the chief ministers of all our states to present to his royal highness, the sultan, for consideration, because all matters pertaining to shariah come under the auspices of our sultans and rajahs.
WERDEN: But surely it's the government's responsibility to - for want of a better word - educate or inform the sultans and rajahs about how unacceptable underage marriage is?
SHAHRIZAT: Well, as far as the federal government's stance is concerned, we do not condone, nor do we want, child marriages because in our estimation below 16 or 18 for that matter is way too young. However, there are some people that feel that because marriage is a private matter, it's not against the law, [and so] it is the duty of the ministry to inform the public at large that we should not encourage child marriages but because it's defying the opinion of the public at large it's not as easy as it would appear. However, I want to say to you, Claudette, those who want to marry below the age of 16 must get court approval.
WERDEN: Yes, I understand what you're saying, but even with the court's approval it does contravene international law.
SHAHRIZAT: I subscribe to your views, too, so does the federal government, but the evolution of legislation in many instances and not only in Malaysia but many other countries as well does take a bit of time and convincing. We have to take into account the cultural hindrances and stereotyping as well, but I must state very loudly and clearly that it is not the norm in Malaysia.