Malaysia opens first school for pregnant teens

Malaysia's first school for pregnant teenagers opened on Friday but the controversial facility, aimed at curbing an epidemic of "baby dumping", has yet to sign up a single student.

Conservative commentators in Muslim-majority Malaysia have complained that Sekolah Harapan or "School of Hope" will only encourage premarital sex.

But its chairman Rahaman Karim defended the school as a practical strategy to combat the rising numbers of abandoned infants - often dumped dead or dying in the streets or on rubbish dumps in cases that have shocked Malaysians.

"Islam and other religions offer a chance for people to repent. We give them a chance to repent and we hope they will turn over a new leaf," he said.

Rahaman said he was confident of filling the vacancies at the school, located on a scenic hilltop outside the tourist town of Malacca, which can take up to 40 students including 20 at its residential hostel.

"This is something new for our society so people are still weighing their pros and cons," he said, adding there had been six requests from prospective students around the country.

"But we have to take action now on these cases of baby dumping, we can't just let that happen," he said on a tour of the building's newly painted classrooms, filled with empty chairs and tables.

An all-female staff will offer normal classes as well as counselling and skills training to the girls, whose privacy is assured. After their delivery and confinement period, they will return to their normal schools.

Giving birth out of wedlock still carries a strong social stigma in Malaysia, a multicultural society embracing Muslim Malays as well as ethnic Chinese and Indian communities.

The chief minister of Malacca state, Mohamad Ali Rustam, who first proposed the school, has said the baby-dumping problem is particularly acute among Malays and has become "a disease of sorts".

In 2009 there were 79 cases but there have been nearly 70 so far this year.

"Baby dumping cases usually happen among the Muslim community as teenagers were desperate to conceal their pregnancies. Some of the girls were also disowned by their families," he said in July.

"They do not perform abortions as this is prohibited in Islam. So, they take the shortcut to solve their problem by dumping their newborns. We do not want this to continue. It has to be stopped."

The project has the backing of the Malacca state Islamic authorities which will run the school, although it is also open to girls of other religions who will receive "morality" classes instead of religious counselling.

"It's a sin (to become pregnant before marriage) but we won't emphasise that, we want them to improve to become better Muslims," said religious council department officer Mohamad Isa Abdullah.

"We are not encouraging pre-marital sex by having this school but we are dealing with the problem."

In another strategy to combat baby-dumping, Malaysia in May introduced the nation's first "baby hatch" centre to rescue unwanted newborns.

The centre, modelled on similar services in Germany, Japan and Pakistan, allows mothers to leave their babies anonymously.

It received its first baby in June, a child who was adopted by a couple selected from a long list of would-be parents.