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Need to rid child marriage law of ambiguities stressed

December 17, 2014


— Illustration by Abro
— Illustration by Abro

KARACHI: Underlining the need to rid the recently enacted provincial law on child marriage of defects and ambiguities, experts named five bright young women ‘Kirans’, or rays, to symbolise hope for a better future of girls in Pakistan. They were speaking at the policy dialogue on the implementation of the Child Marriages Act organised by HANDS and Rutgers WPF in collaboration with the Women Development Department at a hotel here on Tuesday.

“We are to spread the light of awareness of child marriage in our community,” said the first Kiran.

“After receiving training during which we were given the horrifying facts about child marriage and how damaging it is, we went on to discuss these things with the women in our community,” said the second Kiran.

‘Civil society has more resources than the government’

“After discussing with my trainers how to go about my task of spreading awareness, I started with my own family,” said the third Kiran.

“It was easier communicating with our family and class fellows first,” said the fourth Kiran.

“Speaking to the elders in our community was a challenge,” said the fifth Kiran.

Saima Sadaf of Rutgers WPF gave a presentation titled ‘Awareness to Action’ for improving the health and awareness of girls in target areas of Sindh. “We are engaging 650 girls from 16 to 19 years of age who will be referred to as ‘Kiran’. A pool of teachers are receiving training themselves to provide support to these girls,” she said.

Arifa Nazli from the Idara-i-Taleem-o-Aagahi spoke about their web portal ‘End Child Marriage’ for informing the masses about the issue of early marriages. “The portal has links to publication, programmes, campaigns, partners, law and order legislation, media coverage, etc. And we hope to update the info fortnightly,” she said.

Qadeer Baig, country director of Rutgers WPF, shared that so far there were 210 Kirans working in the rural areas of Karachi while 250 were working in Sanghar. “Each Kiran in Karachi has reached some 100 homes already,” he said.

“The British act against childhood marriages has been around since 1939 and we have had it since partition. It is good to know that the Sindh Assembly, too, passed the Child Marriages Act in April but we should make sure that it has no ambiguities so that the people don’t misinterpret it,” said retired Justice Shaiq Usmani.

Explaining a few confusing things in the act, he said: “It is stated that whoever indulges in child marriage is a criminal. But then who is that really? The parents or guardians? The Qazi who performs the nikah? The guests at the wedding? Who? It is important to define who that criminal is because you cannot offend the people, you need their cooperation to implement the law. So more work is needed here.”

Justice Usmani suggested a watchdog body in every district of Sindh. “It could comprise maybe a retired judge, journalist, parliamentarian, etc, to bring any case of child marriage to the magistrate’s notice,” he said.

“I will also advise not to involve religion in this. See, marriage is a contract and only adults have the sound mind and judgement to understand the terms and conditions of a contact. So that should be stressed more. Also look into preventing the wrong older age being written in the nikah papers. What can be done is add a provision of return of the Qazi every month or so to report how many nikahs he has conducted and how old the brides were. Then he may be extra cautious about the girls’ ages.”

Senior country adviser of the Packard Foundation Dr Yasmeen Sabeeh Qazi said that communication was key for implementation.

MPA Irum Azeem Farooque said that implementation required ‘will’. “Only then you’ll find a way,” she said, adding that awareness could be spread through radio or puppet shows in areas where they don’t have television. She also pointed out that it was not just girls who fell prey to child marriages. “Boys too, as young landlords are married to women who are much older than them. Later, they may marry other women closer to their age but that is what goes on with boys. Girls don’t do that,” she said.

Finally, giving her remarks, minister for women development Rubina Qaimkhani, presidin over the dialogue, said: “We should accept the fact that civil society has more resources than the government. It is also civil society that does the hammering on government departments to keep them moving in the right direction. I want our civil society to work at the grass-roots level on spreading awareness as we in the government don’t have many people to do that.”

About the act, she said: “When the Child Marriages Act draft came to me, I knew that it deserved priority. When you protect your children and raise your voice for their rights then you are serious about your progress.”

She thanked her opposing parliamentarians, especially Irum Farooque, for supporting her in getting the bill passed in the provincial assembly. “Such joint efforts leave a fine impact,” she said.

The training of police to implement the law was also important, she said. “This is a sensitive bill as the parents of a girl are involved in her marriage. How can a girl want to see her parents being punished? Still punishment is necessary to set a precedent,” she said.

Published in Dawn, December 17th, 2014