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KARACHI: Are we letting down the country’s children who are a victim of child marriage? This sobering thought was on the minds of all present at a local hotel on Tuesday where a briefing paper titled ‘Ending impunity for child marriage in Pakistan: normative and implementation gaps’ was presented.

The report published by the Centre for Reproductive Rights, was launched in collaboration with the National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR).

Identifying the discrepancies in the legal coverage provided with regard to child marriages in Pakistan, experts offered insight into why and how the federal and the provincial governments must come together to plug the loopholes to prevent human rights violations with regard to child marriages in Pakistan.

Panellists throw light on its mental, physical and societal repercussions

According to Sarah Malkani, advocacy adviser, Asia at Centre for Reproductive Rights, the purpose of the policy brief is to inform policymakers, law enforcement officials, and human rights defenders of key legal issues and potential legal gaps contributing to the continuation of child marriage in Pakistan. It also puts forth a set of recommendations to address these challenges and gaps.

She explained that the report covers the whole of Pakistan and focuses on the legal and policy framework, with existing research taken into consideration to form the policy brief.

“There are many rights violations that result from child marriage. Not only does it harm sexual and reproductive health, complications caused by pregnancy and childbirth is among the leading causes of death of girls aged 15-19,” she explained.

It is essential, she explained, that discrepancies between child marriage legislation and personal laws should be removed and the contradiction in age of marriage should be immediately rectified.

Primary gaps in the child marriage laws in Pakistan are highlighted by the policy brief. The first, it states, is the silence in child marriage legislation concerning whether child marriages are void or voidable.

The other is a lack of clarity regarding whether child marriage legislation prevails over inconsistent personal laws pertaining to the minimum age of marriage.

Shehla Raza, Sindh minister for women development, underscored the need for all stakeholders to commit to addressing the issue of child marriages. She said coordination is needed with the social welfare department and local government to be able to introduce effective intervention and protect the rights of those affected.

Very few child marriages are reported in Pakistan due to the absence of systems at the provincial and national levels for recording and monitoring the incidence of child marriage.

The report reveals that in 2016, Sahil, an NGO, recorded 176 reported cases of child marriage which was an increase from 103 cases reported in 2014, and 75 in 2012.

Anis Haroon of the NCHR pointed out some of the gaps in the law and said that the age of marriage for girls should be raised to 18 with no exceptions. Personal laws, she said, should not undermine child marriage legislation.

The panellists explained that child marriages are most prevalent in rural areas due to limited access to education and healthcare services.

This, they explained, causes girls to be less informed of the consequences of child marriage and more susceptible to health repercussions resulting from early pregnancy.

Activist Iqbal Detho spoke about how the lack of implementation of legislation has become a norm and widely talked about but never rectified.

In his opinion, child marriage is not high on the list of agendas of people in power. Usually those in power depict low interest in such an issue, he explained.

Recommendations shared included increasing the legal age for marriage of girls from 16 to 18, and declaring any marriage below the minimum legal age as void with no legal coverage.

It was also demanded that “victims of child marriage have rights of maintenance, and any child born in such a marriage be given right to inheritance, as well as other support mechanisms, including financial, legal and psychological assistance”.

Published in Dawn, September 26th, 2018