KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - A Malaysian state is to allow Muslim girls under the age of consent of 16 years to wed in a bid to stem unwed pregnancies, angering the country's women's activists and politicians.
The Islamic council in the southern Malaysian state of Malacca on Tuesday announced that it would to allow marriage for Muslims below the current minimum age of 16 years for females and 18 for males.
"This is an outrage. We're turning back the clock when there's ample evidence to show that we should not condone child marriages," said Ivy Josiah, executive director of Women's Aid Organization, a rights group.
Muslims make up about 60 percent of the 28 million population of the Southeast Asian country and fall under Islamic family and criminal laws individually drafted and run by each of the country's 13 states. Non-Muslims come under federal civil laws.
The chief minister of Malacca, Mohammad Ali Rustam, said permission would only be granted after consent by the teenager's families as well as the state Islamic courts.
"For the state government, this is the best step to deal with the problem of abandoned babies and unwed pregnancies," he was quoted as saying by the Utusan Malaysia newspaper.
Malacca earlier announced that the state would open a special school for Muslim girls who become pregnant out of wedlock, a move that also came under fire from rights groups.
"This is a knee-jerk reaction, and such policies should not be carved out by state religious authorities but the federal Ministries of Women, Education, and Health," said Josiah.
Family and Community Development Minister Shahrizat Abdul Jalil said that underage marriage was "morally and socially unacceptable."
The number of underage pregnancies in Malaysia rose to 111 in the first four months of this year from 107 in 2008, according to government numbers.
UN data showed that in 2006, the latest for which numbers are available, the rate per 1,000 births was 12 in Malaysia compared with 52 per 1,000 in neighboring Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country.
Recent cases of babies being abandoned by their unwed mothers have led the Malaysian government to set up its first baby "hatch," where mothers can drop off unwanted children anonymously.
Reporting by Razak Ahmad; Editing by David Chance