THAT the gap between law and implementation is wide is a truth almost universally acknowledged in Pakistan. But perhaps nowhere is this more evident than when we talk about laws designed to protect our children. One glaring example is the law prohibiting child marriages. Under the federal Child Marriage Restraint Act, the minimum age for marriage is 18 for boys and 16 for girls. Sindh, the only province that has enacted provincial child marriage legislation, set the minimum age for marriage at 18 for both boys and girls. Both laws lay down criminal penalties for adults entering into marriage with a child, parents arranging such a marriage, and a person solemnising the marriage.
Unfortunately, the laws have not restrained the practice. According to Unicef, 21 per cent of girls in Pakistan are married below the age of 18. Enforcing laws involving children, marriage and tradition is fraught with complications as it is. Coupled with an inefficient law enforcement system that is insensitive to the welfare of children, child marriage remains a deeply entrenched practice that continues with impunity.
Recent incidents in Sindh’s Umerkot district highlight the various levels at which the legal system fails to protect children from human rights violations resulting from child marriages. In March 2018, the district saw the inauguration of its first women’s police station, with the specific aim of prosecuting crimes against women and girls, including child marriages. However, the police station’s first station house officer, Khushbakht Shabana Naz, claims she was suspended and demoted for doing just that.
In April, Khushbakht received reports of an imminent marriage in her district between a 12-year-old girl and an eight-year-old boy. She arrived at the scene and observed a girl and boy dressed as bride and groom, wedding guests and a festive meal laid out on the tables. Khushbakht took the girl into custody and arrested her parents in line with the procedures under the law. Soon after, however, she received a call from her superior officer, who came to know of the incident through connections with the girl’s family. He directed that Khushbakht secure an affidavit from the girl’s family promising that they would not wed their daughter, and simply on that basis return the girl to her parents. Khushbakht reluctantly complied with her superior’s orders.
Since 2013, when Sindh enacted a law against child marriage, only 51 cases have been registered.
The very next day, Khushbakht claims she received reports that the girls’ family took her to a neighbouring village where she was, predictably, married off promptly. Five days later, however, she was shocked to see news circulating on the electronic media accusing her of colluding with local landlords, known as the Pallis, to kidnap a girl and claiming that the girl was now in the landlords’ custody. The Pallis denied this, as did Khushbakht, who had on record the affidavit from the girl’s family confirming that she was returned to them.
Following intense media and community pressure, the superintendent of police not only suspended Khushbakht, but demoted her as well, although she claims he knows she followed his orders and handed the girl over to her parents. A few days later, the girl appeared at a police station in Hyderabad, brought in by some people who claimed they saw her wandering on the roads. The girl made a statement that she had been abducted by Khushbakht, drugged, and then taken to the Pallis, who released her a few days later.
The girl’s family took their daughter back with them, but according to Khushbakht, has not yet filed a criminal complaint. Khushbakht believes that the girl had been forced by her family to give the statement, and that the family is retaliating against her for taking the bold step of trying to prevent a child marriage.
The challenges in protecting victims of child marriage illustrated by this story sometimes lead people to question whether the law is an effective tool against the practice. Since the Sindh legislation was enacted in 2013, a mere 51 cases in the entire province have been registered with the police, according to a report by the Sindh Community Foundation. Child marriage cases are difficult to prosecute in part because they involve protecting children from their own family and community. However, the law gives police the authority to make an arrest to prevent a child marriage and take a child into protective custody to protect him or her from their parents. Recognising that a child cannot be placed in police custody indefinitely, there are legal provisions for the establishment of child protection institutions. But in the vast majority of districts no child protection institutes exist, and so there are effectively no safe spaces for children who are victims of abuse and exploitation.
Some child rights advocates argue that since the barrier to ending child marriages is family and community pressure, emphasis should be placed on educating and raising awareness rather than increasing policing within communities. However, this approach only focuses on a long-term solution to the problem, and asks the state to turn a blind eye to the human rights violation blatantly taking place every day.
The real problem lies in the complete failure of our state institutions to place the welfare of our children before anything else. It is not that the use of the law is bad per se, but that in practice it fails to effectively guarantee children the social, psychological and financial protection and services that they need if traditional practices such as child marriage are to be effectively countered.
Regardless of which side of the murky story from Umerkot is true, it’s clear that the welfare of the children forced into marriage was neglected while the controversy between community members, politically influential people and the police was taking its course. As a society we must ask ourselves: we have the laws, police stations and police officers to stop child marriages, but when will we stop failing our children?
The writer is a lawyer.
Published in Dawn, June 22nd, 2018