Malaysia's government has come under renewed pressure to outlaw child marriages after another case of a child bride surfaced in a poor rural state, the second in weeks.
A 15-year-old teenager became the second wife of a 44-year-old Muslim man in northeast Kelantan state, the New Straits Times newspaper reported. It said the union was approved by the Islamic Shariah court in July after her parents consented due to poverty.
The latest case occurred in the same month when a Kelantan rubber trader married an 11-year-old girl as his third wife, but only became public this week.
Muslim girls under the minimum legal marriage age of 16 can wed with the consent of the Shariah court and their parents. Muslim men can marry up to four wives.
The case has sparked renewed outrage among rights groups. UNICEF in a statement slammed the latest child marriage as "unacceptable" and urged Malaysia to bring legislative change to ban the practice.
"A new legislation on child marriage should be accompanied by other measures, including compulsory access to secondary education, sexual reproductive health education and poverty reduction," said UNICEF representative to Malaysia, Marianne Clark-Hattingh.
The New Straits Times cited the girl's parents as saying that they wanted a better life for theirs daughter, a school dropout and the youngest of 13 children.
Similarly, the 11-year-old Thai girl, who lives in Kelantan with her parents, was also a school dropout from a poor family. A 41-year-old rubber scrap dealer, who has two wives and six children aged between ages of 5 and 18, secretly wed the girl in Thailand. The union became public after one of his wives lodged a complaint with police.
The man was later fined by the Shariah court for marrying without its permission but wasn't charged for underage marriage. He told local media he would formalise the marriage by applying for an official certificate in five years when his latest wife turns 16. The girl has reportedly been sent back to Thailand where she is placed under welfare care.
Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Wan Azizah Wan Ismail has said the government is investigating the latest case but that its hands are tied as the marriage was approved by the Shariah court. She said the government is seeking to raise the minimum legal age of marriage for Muslim girls to 18, same as under civil laws.
Malaysia follows a dual-track justice system. Nearly two-thirds of Malaysia's 31 million people are Muslims, who are governed by Islamic courts in family, marriage and personal issues.
Rights group Lawyers for Liberty urged police to probe the man in the latest case for "sexual grooming" as he reportedly knew the girl for several months before marriage. It warned that "pedophiles are now clearly using marriage as a shield to prevent prosecution for rape or sexual grooming" following the government's failure to act.
"This puts the children of this country, particularly Muslim children, in constant danger from perverts and pedophiles," executive director Latheefa Koya said in a statement.
The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia said it was concerned that parents can now legally resort to "selling" their children under the guise of marriage.
"It now appears that poverty can also be a reason accepted by the Shariah court to approve an application for marriage of an underage child, which in turn seems to treat children as mere commodities," said Chairman Razali Ismail. He called for social protection for children in poverty and echoed calls for the government to outlaw child marriages.
Government officials have said some 15,000 child marriages have been recorded in the past 10 years, two-thirds of which involve Muslims.