KOTA KINABALU: After facing mounting backlash from the public for his controversial remarks, Sabah mufti Datuk Bungsu @ Aziz Jaafar has clarified that his statement that girls should be allowed to marry at 14, and boys at 16, only applied to "special cases".
Bungsu said he merely suggested that these were marriageable ages, and that different consideration should be given to teenagers wanting to get married under "special circumstances".
"For certain cases, special cases, the law must allow them to get married. Sabah has a lot of these examples of young girls and boys who can't continue their education. They're working in oil palm estates and farms because they don't have the means to study. This is the group I was referring to.
"In my opinion, if the minimum marriage age is raised to 18, negative things might happen," he said when contacted.
Bungsu said teenagers, however, must first be considered eligible by the courts for marriage.
"They have to go through the court to determine whether they are mentally ready and prepared to get married," he added.
Meanwhile, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Sabah have maintained their stance that 18 should be the minimum age of marriage.
Sabah Women's Action Resource Group (SAWO) secretary Yasmin Ooi said based on scientific, economic and psychological evidence, child brides were not equipped to handle the responsibilities of being wives and mothers in society.
"Some girls may develop secondary sexual characteristics like breasts, and start their menstruation at a young age, but their bodies are still developing. If they were to become pregnant, they would face complications during pregnancy and delivery, which can be potentially fatal for them and their unborn children.
"If they survive that, they will most likely be deprived of education. As such, they would be disadvantaged when it comes to economic opportunities, therefore trapping another generation in poverty," she said.
Ooi said the law deems 18 to be the age of maturity, whereby the individual is considered an adult.
"At that age, an individual can own or discharge a property, as well as be held responsible by the court for committing a crime.
"That is why we feel that to start a family or get married, one should be an adult first," she added.
Society for Equality, Respect And Trust for All (Serata) founder Sabrina Aripen said it was appalling that certain parties were still defending a lower age bracket for marriage by insisting that puberty is the sign of maturity.
She described such arrangement as "legalised paedophilia" and "prostitution of young girls".
"Yes, 18 is the minimum. Although I don't think anyone is even mature enough at that age, it is the age where it is accepted that you can do grown-up things without needing your parents' consent, such as opening a bank account," Sabrina explained.
Good Shepherd Services (GSS) executive director Chin Poh Choo said 18 years should be the minimum marriage age as this would enable the individuals to at least complete their secondary education before getting married.
She also dismissed the idea of child marriages as being a way out of poverty, especially for families living in rural areas.
"There should be no distinction between children in urban areas and rural areas. A child is still a child, regardless of where they come from.
"In fact, because children in rural areas are more vulnerable, all the more reason that protection should be extended to them," said Chin.
For Muslims, the minimum age of marriage is 16 for girls and 18 for boys, but exceptions can be made for girls or boys to marry at a younger age as long as they obtain the Islamic courts' consent.
Under civil law, non-Muslims can only marry from the age of 18 but non-Muslim girls can marry as early as 16, provided they get the permission of the state chief minister or mentri besar.