PETALING JAYA - In Malaysia, girls under the age of 16 cannot legally drive or buy cigarettes. They can't even watch certain movies or go clubbing. But they can marry - lawfully at that.
And many are increasingly doing so, according to statistics from the Malaysian Syariah Judiciary Department (JKSM).
In 2012, there were around 1,165 applications for marriage in which one party, usually the bride, is younger than the legal marrying age. The Syariah Courts approved 1,022 of them. This is an increase from the 2011 record, when some 900 marriages involving at least one Muslim minor were approved.
As of May this year, JKSM received 600 marriage applications, of which 446 had been approved.
In Malaysia, the legal minimum marriage age is 18, but it is 16 for Muslim girls. Those aged below 16 can marry with the consent of the Syariah Court.
Malaysia, along with over 90 other countries, adopted a United Nations resolution to end child, early or forced marriages, at the Human Rights Council last week.
However, JKSM's data shows that child marriage is very much rampant in Malaysia.
Sisters in Islam said it was shocking that child marriage still existed in the country because of loopholes in the marriage laws and a con-tinuing belief that girls should be married off once they reached puberty.
"We stand by the UN findings that child marriage is harmful to children and girls, in particular, are vulnerable to abuse, health problems, difficulty in accessing education and loss of childhood and adolescence," said SIS legal officer Kartina Mohd Sobri.
Given the significant number, the Government needed to review the provisions in secular, customary and Syariah law that currently permitted girls under the age of 18 to marry, said United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Malaysia programme adviser Saira Shameem.
"We need to develop alternatives and more progressive options that will allow our young to achieve the fullest extent of their potentials.
"There is also a risk to the physical health of girls who marry and conceive too early.
"As a result, we have underaged girls in Malaysia today who die of maternal health complications during delivery," she said.
"This is unacceptable, and efforts must be taken to provide genuine alternatives and life-saving choices to these young people."
According to Islamic Development Malaysia Department (Jakim) director-general Datuk Haji Othman Mustapha, getting married at an early age "is not forbidden in Islam but the marrying couple have to be mature enough to understand that with matrimony comes great responsibility".
"The couple has to know if they are prepared for married life and if they are equipped with the right knowledge, especially what it means to be a husband or wife in Islam. Most importantly, they need to understand the real reason why they are marrying," he said.
"If it is just to satisfy their sexual desires, they need to know that it will not lead to a happy and lasting union."
He pointed out that Section 8 of the Islamic Family Law (Federal Territories) Act stated that the minimum legal age for Muslim boys is 18, and Muslim girls is 16.
"Those younger are allowed to marry with the written permission from the Syariah Court after both sets of parents put in an application to formalise their nuptials," he pointed out.
"Marriage and starting a family is a big responsibility, one that is not to be taken lightly," Othman said, conceding that the question of whether young people today were able to handle marriage at an early age did arise.
"But the Syariah Court will do a thorough assessment of their readiness," he said, adding that the Syariah Court would also do a check on the parents before giving its approval.
Chief Syariah Judge and Malaysian Judiciary Department director-general Tan Sri Ibrahim Lembut declined to comment.