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KUALA LUMPUR -- Malaysia's religion minister on Tuesday defended Islamic laws that allow girls under 16 to marry, amid a controversy over two youngsters who were married off to middle-aged men.
The issue has flared in Malaysia after reports that two girls aged 10 and 11 were wed in the conservative northern state of Kelantan last month. They have now been removed from their husbands.
Rights groups have called for the reform of Islamic laws that allow marriage under the age of 16 if religious officials give their consent. Sharia law runs in parallel with civil law in multi-ethnic Malaysia.
"There is no need to amend the law," Jamil Khir Baharom, a cabinet minister in charge of religious affairs, told reporters.
"The law already exists... marrying someone aged 16 and below requires the consent of the court. The court does not simply grant the consent," he said.
"Maturity is a subjective question. It depends on the development of the person. Maturity is not based on age solely."
Pressure group Sisters in Islam has called for an end to child marriages, saying the practice was "unacceptable" but continued in Malaysia because of a "belief that Muslim girls can be married off once they reach puberty".
"The minimum age of marriage for Muslim girls must be raised to 18 to be in compliance with the Child Act which defines children as those below the age of 18," it said in a statement.
Other citizens in the multicultural country -- where the population is dominated by Muslim Malays -- are not permitted to marry before the age of 18.
Malaysian authorities are investigating the case of the two girls in Kelantan, both linked to a man who is accused of leading an Islamic cult.
He is accused of marrying the 11-year-old girl and giving away his 10-year-old daughter to a family friend.
Sharia court officials told the New Straits Times Tuesday the 11-year-old's marriage was not approved in court.
The girl was found outside a mosque in the nation's capital over the weekend and is now being treated in hospital.
Women, family and community development minister Shahrizat Abdul Jalil has spoken out against the practice.
"A child of that age does not have the choice or capacity to give her full consent and, as such, child marriage is viewed within the context of force and coercion," she said in a statement to AFP.