Oct 11, 2020

Ending Early Marriage

Pakistan is committed to eliminating early age marriage by 2030 in line with Target 5.3 of the Sustainable Development Goals

“It is a bitter reality that the practice of early age marriage still exists in Pakistan in general and in Tribal Districts in particular”, said Sidra-tul-Muntaha, a native of Barwand area of South Waziristan and a law student at Gomal University, Dera Ismail Khan.

Customs, illiteracy, and poverty are some of the factors that force the girls’ parents and guardians to agree to childhood marriages, she says. “It’s really insane and unfair to a girl. Some of the brides hardly know what is happening to them,” Sidra adds.

A majority of girls in the tribal areas are married when they are teenagers. Even when they have strong objections, they don’t know how to react. As part of the tribal society, I can understand the situation of those girls, another student from tribal area says on the condition of anonymity.

In some cases extreme poverty is the decisive factor. Some people in the region decide that they can’t afford a girl-child. They consider girls a burden on the family and want to be rid of it as soon as they can. They’ll sometimes marry them off for very little money.

“Early marriages cause many complications in the lives of the young girls. Early pregnancies are sometimes fatal. Many girls die while giving birth to unhealthy children”, she says.

Manal Khan*, another tribal girl, highlights another aspect of child marriages. She says some parents see their daughters as a means of enrichment. They ask for Rs 50,000 to Rs 100,000 [for giving a girl in marriage]. “It is as if girls are seen like cattle and sold in the name of marriage,” Khan says.

She says the early marriage norm is partly on account of a lack of education. There are few schools for girls, particularly in rural areas.

According to the tribal girls, the literacy rate in the region has a huge gender gap. While 32.3 percent of men can read and write female literacy stands at 4.3 percent. They say if women are educated they will be better able to raise a voice for badly needed social reforms.

They say the tribal economy and therefore tribal culture is in a state of transformation. Hundreds of tribal girls are already going to colleges in various parts of KP.

They say there is a stark difference between how educated parents and uneducated parents treat their children, particularly girls.

According to a UNICEF report, 21 percent of girls in Pakistan are married before their 18th birthday and 3 percent are married before the age of 15. The country has the 6th highest number of child brides in the world (1,909,000). The median age of marriage is the lowest in rural areas and in Gilgit-Baltistan.

Another study on child marriages, conducted in 2017, estimates that ending child marriage in Pakistan could lead to a $6,229 million rise in earnings and productivity.

Fatima Jinnah Women University Assistant Professor Dr Saadia Nauman doesn’t relate the impact of child marriage to national productivity. Dr Nauman says that there are problems beyond early marriage and that those are on account of the approach some segments of the society have.

Sometimes when a girl gets married, she says, her in-laws treat her as their property. “If she has a say; if she can have a career, the marriage is not a hurdle. If she has no say and is treated as somebody who will obey whatever her in-laws command, then the marriage becomes a problem,” she says.

A marriage should give a woman freedom and empower her to play her role in the society. If a marriage is not doing that it’s probably not in her interest.

“If a girl doesn’t want a career it’s up to her. But if she wants to do something and is not given a chance and forced into a marriage, then marriage is a problem”, she adds.

She says marriage is a sacred institution and girls should not be discouraged to get married. She says they should not even be stopped from marrying young as long as they are in their 20s.

She says child marriage is driven sometimes by gender inequality and the belief that girls are inferior to boys. In Pakistan, she says, child marriage is driven by tradition, exchange and in settlement of serious disputes.

According to Beijing+25 and Child marriage document, every year, 12 million girls around the world are married before the age of 18.

Legal status of child marriage

Under the Child Marriage Restraint Act 1929, the minimum legal age for marriage is 16 years for girls and 18 years for boys. In 2014, the Sindh Assembly unanimously adopted the Child Marriage Act, raising the minimum age for marriage to 18 years and making child marriage a punishable offence. A similar bill was struck down by the National Assembly in 2014. However, according to Syed Kausar Abbas an Islamabad based child-rights activist, while the Sindh government has passed the law, its implementation has been extremely slow especially due to the honour-centric social mindset.

Former PPP senator, Sehar Kamran says that “if the law doesn’t consider those under 18 to be mature enough to drive a car, then how can they be considered mature enough for marriage? Marriage is a legal contract, which like other contracts must be signed under lawful rules and regulation, in the presence of witnesses.”

In May 2017, a proposed Child Marriage Restraint (Amendment) Bill seeking to revise the legal age of marriage to 18 years for girls was moved into the Senate by Senator Kamran and the bill was passed by the standing committee.

However, it was then referred to the Council of Islamic Ideology for review. CII was supposed to compile a report within three weeks. Two months later, no report had been published but the CII indicated that marriage can be performed at any age, but moving to the husband’s house [rukhsati] would only be allowed after the age of 18.

Kamran says there was no point in referring this bill to the IIC for review, as it was not a religious issue. “Every state in the world, including Saudi Arabia, has laws related to the marriage contract.”

In May 2017, a proposed Child Marriage Restraint (Amendment) Bill seeking to revise the legal age of marriage to 18 years for girls was moved in the Senate by Senator Sehar Kamran. The bill was cleared by a standing committee. It was then referred to the Council of Islamic Ideology for review. The CII was asked for a report in three weeks. Two months later, no report had been published, but the CII indicated that a marriage contract could be reached at any age. It suggested that the rukhsati should only be allowed after the age of 18.

Abbas says that the situation in Pakistan is alarming, and that the government must take productive initiatives to eradicate the problem of child marriage. “Due to poverty-stricken conditions of the family, girls are considered as an economic burden.” Speaking to the initiatives taken Advocate Imtiaz Ahmad Somra, a child right activist, also says that “while the laws relating to child marriages are very clear, the real issue is enforcement as neither society nor system administrators are ready to accept, child marriage as a serious problem.”

He says that Section 498, 498-B and 498-C of Pakistan Penal Code clearly delineate the level of punishment for violators, and declare forced marriage a criminal act with a maximum 7 years imprisonment and Rs 500,000 fine.

International obligations

Pakistan is committed to eliminating early age marriage by 2030 in line with Target 5.3 of the Sustainable Development Goals. Islamabad ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1996. These require signatory states to ensure free and informed consent to marriage.

Pakistan is also a member of the South Asian Initiative to End Violence Against Children (SAIEVAC), which adopted a regional action plan to end child marriage between 2015 and 2018. Under SAIEVAC, Pakistan joined the Kathmandu Call to Action to End Child Marriage in Asia (2014).

As part of its commitment, Islamabad has to ensure access to legal remedies for child brides and establish a uniform minimum legal age of marriage age 18. During its 2018 Universal Periodic Review, Islamabad had agreed to examine recommendations to set the minimum age for marriage at 18.

Child marriage is a harmful practice. Child brides face many challenges, including barriers to quality of secondary education, access to comprehensive health services and information, and higher risk of violence. As the global community unites to mark Beijing +25 in 2020, it is imperative that the participation, rights and needs of adolescent girls sit at the heart of discussion on gender equality.