KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — A prominent Malaysian official Thursday encouraged young Muslim teenagers to get married if they cannot resist having sex and promised money to help them start a family — a stance that drew criticism from women's rights activists.
Mohamad Ali Rustam, chief minister of southern Malacca state, said the moves could help reduce a growing problem of babies being abandoned by girls who have unwanted pregnancies.
Muslims are permitted to marry after reaching puberty in Malaysia, as long as they obtain consent from their parents and Islamic Shariah courts. Nearly two-thirds of Malaysia's 28 million people are Muslim.
For non-Muslim Malaysians, however, girls must be at least 16 and boys 18 to marry.
Underage marriages are not common, and authorities have voiced concern that unmarried teenagers are having sex, sometimes resulting in young mothers killing or abandoning their babies.
Encouraging teenagers to marry could be "a good way to solve the problem" of babies being dumped, Mohamad Ali said.
"These people, you can't just stop them from having sex," Mohamad Ali told The Associated Press. "Muslim girls also want to enjoy (sex)."
Officials in Malacca plan to start providing 500 ringgit ($160) in financial help to young couples who want to get married. They are also considering building a special school for girls who become pregnant, since regular schools would expel them, Mohamad Ali said.
So far this year, Malacca authorities have recorded 174 babies born out of wedlock, he said. Fourteen were to girls under age 16 and 60 to girls between 16 and 20. Three babies were found abandoned. Similar problems have been reported in other Malaysian states.
Mohamad Ali said Muslim girls who have sex out of wedlock also risk being thrown out of their homes by their parents, with some becoming prostitutes to make a living.
Women's rights activists criticized Mohamad Ali's views, which he first expressed to Malaysian media earlier this week.
"It's a regressive move. ... We all know that child marriages are an aberration," said Ivy Josiah, executive director of the Women's Aid Organization, a private group.
Laws that allow marriage below the age of 18 should be scrapped because they might encourage pedophilia and undermine the physical and emotional health of teenagers, Josiah said.
Mohamad Ali stressed he did not support teenagers having sex out of wedlock, but said it would be all right if they were married.
Government and public opinion about teen marriage has been mixed, with some other top officials and activists strongly opposing it. Shahrizat Abdul Jalil, the federal Cabinet minister in charge of women's and family matters, reportedly said recently that marriages of young teenagers were "morally and socially unacceptable."