Islam's guiding council in Thailand has introduced new regulations requiring that marriages of children under age 17 be approved by a religious committee.
The action follows an uproar earlier this year over an 11-year-old Thai girl who married a 41-year-old Malaysian man, triggering calls in both countries for stronger laws against child marriage. The girl was reportedly sent back to Thailand from Malaysia and put under the care of Thai social welfare workers.
A senior member of the Central Islamic Council of Thailand, Wisut Binlateh, said on Friday that Muslim children of any age in Thailand previously could get married with permission from their parents, but now children under age 17 must also seek approval from an Islamic committee which would consider whether the marriage is appropriate.
Wisut said the measure took effect Dec 4, when the Sheikhul Islam, the senior Thai Muslim leader, signed his approval.
Human rights activist Angkhana Neelaphaijit said the regulation does not carry the weight of law, and holds no punishment for those who fail to abide by it.
Islamic law is observed for Muslims in Thailand's four southernmost provinces for family matters and inheritance, but does not set a minimum age for marriage. Three of the four provinces are the only ones with Muslim majorities in the Buddhist-dominated country, while the fourth has a substantial Muslim community.
According to Thai law, which applies to the rest of the country, the minimum legal age for marriage is 17, though courts may allow the marriage of younger individuals if there is an appropriate reason. The reasons, however, are not defined in the law.
Angkhana said the new measure by Thailand's Islamic leaders is a step in the right direction, but requires further work to protect people's rights.
"It is a good thing that the Sheikhul Islam Office has introduced this measure, but we have to also try to reach an understanding with the religious leaders that if there are violators, what can we do to punish them," she said.
Angkhana also said because Thailand's four southern provinces use Islamic law for family matters, a legal loophole has allowed a surge in Malaysian men coming to southern Thailand for second or third marriages, because there is little oversight compared to what they face at home.
"The problem is in Malaysia, if a man wants to have a second or third wife, he needs to ask permission from a court. But in Thailand, there is no such law regulating this or also anyone checking whether a man is wealthy enough to care for a family," she said.