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Child marriage bill

Updated October 13, 2017

IT is unfortunate when a country’s democratic wardens use the smokescreen of faith to rebuff legislation aimed at protecting women and children.

On Wednesday, this disregard for women and child rights was witnessed in the corridors of power as a Senate standing committee rejected the federal Child Marriage Restraint (Amendment) Bill, 2017, terming it ‘unIslamic’ — a bill that proposes to increase the minimum marriageable age for girls from 16 to 18 years.

Citing ‘scholarly’ advice, the committee chairman, Senator Rehman Malik, claimed that underage marriage was acceptable according to religious edicts. As a long-time PPP stalwart, he should be more cognisant of women’s rights. When traditions embedded in misogynistic attitudes lead to violence against women and children — ‘honour’ killing, rape, sexual harassment, domestic violence — they should be disregarded.

It is inexplicable why his committee should acquiesce in the interpretation of conservative lobbies at the cost of young girls’ lives. Mr Rehman should recall that his own party has not only espoused the rights of women and minorities but has done battle with the right wing to push through landmark pro-women legislation — even while in opposition.

With 21pc of girls wedded by 18 in Pakistan, underage marriage is a form of violence that robs them of a childhood and education. The legal age for adulthood is set at 18 — the age to vote and drive; the minimum marriageable age for girls must be the same.

Taking Sindh’s progressive child marriage legislation (the brainchild of Mr Rehman’s own party), as a precedent, the federal Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929, and the Punjab Child Marriages Restraint (Amendment) Act, 2015, must both be revised as they determine the marriageable age for girls at 16 and 18 for boys.

Lawmakers must recognise that when girls as young as 10 are married off, they will drop out of school, suffer domestic violence, have complicated, sometimes fatal, pregnancies and never find a way out of the cycle of poverty and inequality.

Published in Dawn, October 13th, 2017