A Malaysian state governed by a conservative Islamic party plans to reward "good" Muslim men who declare their polygamous marriages and are able to take proper care of their multiple households, an official said Wednesday.
Muslim men in mainly Muslim Malaysia can have up to four wives at one time but must fulfill various requirements, including obtaining consent from existing spouses and from the state religious department.
Many husbands travel to other states or to neighboring Thailand to hold secret weddings and then return home with their additional wives, causing marital conflicts, officials say.
Wan Ubaidah Omar, who heads the Women, Health and Family Development Committee in northeast Kelantan state, said 1,600 polygamous marriages were registered in the state last year.
"We believe there are many more who didn't declare and this will only create problems for the families later on," she told The Associated Press.
"We are considering giving rewards to men who practice polygamy but do not hide their new wives, who treat all their families fairly and provide for them all. This is not to encourage polygamy but to recognize the good men in society who can become role models for others," she said.
Wan Ubaidah said polygamous men should choose to marry widows and divorcees because there are 25,000 of them under the age of 60 in the state. The incentives may be introduced next year and could be in the form of an annual award for the best polygamous husband, financial aid, or gifts to bolster marital harmony, she added.
Kelantan, ruled by the opposition Pan-Islamic Malaysian Party, is among the country's most conservative states.
Though allowed by Islam, polygamy is contentious for some Muslims, who account for nearly two-thirds of the country's 28 million people. Women's groups have campaigned for stricter laws to deter men from frivolously entering polygamous marriages, saying the practice undermines the well being of wives and children.
Activists estimate polygamous unions in Malaysia account for about 5 percent of all new marriages. A survey by a Muslim activist group last year found that children and first wives in polygamous families oppose the practice because the men seem too stretched to devote enough time and money to them.
But the practice also has supporters in Malaysia, where a club was started in 2009 by about 1,000 people who insist that multiple marriages deter adultery and improve the marriage prospects of single mothers and reformed prostitutes.