In many regressive societies, the term ‘child bride’ calls to mind the unsavoury practice of marrying a child, even a preteen, to someone much, much older. This is true for South Asian countries, including Pakistan and Afghanistan, carrying the highest burden of child marriage in the world. Recent Unicef estimates reveal a harrowing number of 290 million child brides in the region, which represents 45% of all child marriages globally.
Marriage is supposed to be a willing union between a man and a woman but is now frequently a transaction among families, where girls are bartered in exchange for valuable goods or sold under economic pressures. This has compelled parents to even push their preteen daughters into marriage, who may fetch a higher price for the family than a grown-up girl. But the practice of child marriage is also deeply rooted in our culture and abhorrent customary practices encouraging parents to yield their daughters before they elope from home, or their abduction may bring shame to the family.
In Pakistan, one in three girls is married before reaching the age of 18, as per the data released by Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey. Early-age marriages, undoubtedly, hinder the prospects of girls, making them susceptible to domestic violence, family abuse and health issues. They are forced to end their teenage days and enter adulthood before being physically or mentally prepared to shoulder the family burden and understand the sensitivity of wedlock. Besides, limiting the chance for education, health and the right to financial independence, child marriage contributes to high population growth.
Pakistan has made commitment, as part of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), to end all under-18 marriages by 2030. However, our current law, The Child Marriage Restraint Act 1929, still sets a legal marriage age at 16 for girls and 18 for boys, thereby discriminating in marriage ages for both genders. Besides Pakistan, other South-Asian countries are still using the same colonial-era legislation but with some important amendments that raise the marriage age for girls. For instance, in Nepal, the legal marriage age is 20 years, whereas in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and India it is 18. Pakistan and Afghanistan are the only countries in the region that allow 16-year old girls to get married.
After the 18th Constitutional Amendment in 2010, the prevention of child marriages became a provincial subject. Sindh is the only province in the country that brought amendments to the federal law barring under-18 marriage for girls. Their Child Restraint Marriage Act, 2013 makes underage girls’ marriage a cognisable and non-compoundable offence, empowering police to act on their own to arrest an offender; and no private deals can be made between the accused and victim’s families to bypass the law. In 2015, Punjab Assembly passed amendments to its Child Marriage Restraint Act, a futile exercise by the legislature that only increased the terms of imprisonment and punitive fines on the guardian and male adults for contracting child marriage for girls below 16. Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa continue to be governed by the 1929 Act, like the Federal territory.
Pakistan is a country that runs on a hybrid-legal regime, where every law or amendment brought to federal or provincial legislation is subjected to the overview of the Council of Islamic Ideology, having members from different religious factions. This is yet another obstacle in reinforcing amendments to laws concerning child marriage. Besides, within the parliament, repeated attempts have been made to amend the marriage age of girls, but the strong opposition from religious parties makes it difficult to pass any laws that contradict their beliefs.
To protect our girls from the menace of early marriages, there is need for a robust legislation in the entire country. Religio-political parties must set aside their tribal practices so that a law could be made in true spirit. This will help our girls protect themselves from the damaging effects of early marriages and lead healthier and freer lives in the country.
Acknowledgement/Credit: Published in Daily The Express Tribune, May 11th, 2023.