Malaysian state chided for allowing under age marriage

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A decision by a Malaysian state to allow under age marriages has drawn criticism from women's groups.

Officials in Malacca state said the move was aimed at reducing the number of babies born outside wedlock.

But Minister for Women Shahrizat Abdul Jalil called the decision - which would allow Muslim girls under 16 and boys under 18 to get married - "morally and socially unacceptable".

The move came from the state government and its Islamic Religious Council.

The chief minister of Malacca, Mohammad Ali Rustam, said it was intended to address social problems.

"For the state government, this is the best step to deal with the problem of abandoned babies and unwed pregnancies," the Utusan Malaysia newspaper quoted him as saying.

Under age marriages would only be allowed on a case-by-case basis as decided by the Islamic court, Bernama news agency quoted Prime Minister's Department Minister Datuk Seri Jamil Khir Baharom as saying.

But the move has been roundly criticised by women's 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 Ivy Josiah, the executive director of Women's Aid Organisation.

"We're turning back the clock when there's ample evidence to show that we should not condone child marriages."

Muslims make up about 60% of Malaysia's 28 million people. They are subject to Islamic laws which can be set at state level, while non-Muslims are subject to federal law.

A non-governmental organisation has recently set up the country's first "baby hatch", to accept unwanted babies from women including unmarried mothers.

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