PETALING JAYA - There is an urgent need for the Government to review and amend laws to set the minimum age of marriage at 18 for all Malaysians, regardless of beliefs and without exception.
Mental Health Promotion Advisory Council member Tan Sri Lee Lam Thye said this legal revision was necessary to stop child marriages, which impose a great deal of pressure on mental health issues.
"Married children are not only denied the right to choose partners; they are also marginalised and subject to various religious, societal, political and cultural practices that fail to fulfil their basic human rights.
"They are also denied the appropriate childhood and adolescence, and this causes suffering in psychological well-being and empowerment.
"Many of them are also at risk of being exposed to domestic violence," he said in response to a report in Sunday Star, which highlighted the rising number of early marriages among Malaysians below 19, and the potential billions lost to the nation's economy if left unchecked.
In Malaysia, the legal minimum marriage age is 18 for non-Muslims and 16 for Muslims.
Muslims aged below 16 can marry with the consent of the Syariah Court, while non-Muslims between 16 and 18 years old can marry with parental consent and written permission from the state's Chief Minister or Mentri Besar.
"Policymakers need to voice out on this issue, while the Government needs to work on improving public awareness of the dangers of child marriage for the child's education and health.
"Couples intending to marry will need to learn mental health life skills, parenting and human relationship skills before they are ready, and children are definitely not ready for that life," said Lee.
He also raised the issue of early pregnancy that almost inevitably occurs among girls who marry before they are 18, and insisted that the girls were not mentally or physically capable of bearing children.
"Married girls are often forced to have sex, and they lack the knowledge to negotiate for safe sex and contraceptive practices, which puts them at risk of sexually transmitted diseases.
"If they get pregnant, they may have risk of complications in pregnancy and labour, like possible abortion, premature labour and intrauterine growth retardation," he added.
Lee also urged parents and guardians to not get children married in an attempt to "get rid of an economic burden", as the long-term effect was that the country would lose educated citizens with the potential to contribute to the nation's economic value.