(KUALA LUMPUR) — Malaysian authorities are investigating the marriage between an 11-year-old Thai girl and a 41-year-old Malaysian Muslim that has sparked public outrage and calls for child brides to be banned.
Rubber scrap dealer Che Abdul Karim Che Abdul Hamid secretly married the girl as his third wife in Thailand, and the union became public after one of his wives lodged a complaint with police.
Muslim girls under the minimum legal marriage age of 16 can wed with the consent of the Shariah court and their parents. Muslim men in Malaysia can marry four wives.
Deputy Prime Minister Wan Azizah Wan Ismail has said the marriage was illegal as it had not been approved by the Shariah court. She is meeting officials Monday to discuss the issue, her aide said.
Photos on social media showed the groom holding the girl’s hand after the marriage ceremony. Local media said Che Abdul Karim, who is also an imam in a rural village in northeast Kelantan state, already has two wives and six children aged between 5 and 18.
He told Bernama news agency that his marriage was lawful and approved by the girl’s parents, who are poor rubber tappers in Malaysia. He has said he will only formalize the marriage in Malaysia when the girl turns 16 and that she will stay with her parents until then. The girl was also quoted as saying by local media that she doesn’t understand the fuss over her marriage as she is in love with Che Abdul Karim.
Wan Azizah has told local media that officials are investigating if the parents approved the marriage due to poverty. She said an initial investigation showed the girl, who doesn’t attend school, was wooed twice and that her mother had told the man the girl was too young and asked for the marriage to be consummated only when she turns 16.
She also said the girl’s elder brother was grappling with juvenile problems, adding to the complexity of the issue.
“Paedophilia, child exploitation, child pornography… we must be firm on this as children are our responsibility,” she was quoted as saying.
Activists have urged the government to raise the minimum age for marriage to 18.
The U.N. children agency called the latest child marriage “shocking and acceptable”. The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia expressed concern that allowing child marriage in the name of religion might “provide cover for paedophiles and child sexual predators.”
The National Human Rights Society said government data showed there were as many as 15,000 Malaysian child brides in 2010 and called for laws to criminalize child marriage to protect minors.