Continuum of harm

January 23, 2019

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The writer is a freelance journalist based in Karachi.
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Karachi.

WE may never know what the perfect age for marriage should be, but experts list countless disadvantages when boys and girls wed at an early age. Underage marriage thrusts both boys and girls into the sphere of adult responsibilities long before they are ready for them.

No country has been able to eliminate child marriage and make it, to borrow from legalese, void ab initio, or ‘illegal at the outset’, although India’s Karnataka state is an exception. Technically speaking, child marriage is prohibited in Pakistan for girls under 16 (except for Sindh where it is 18) and boys under 18. Still, girls continue to get married well below the legal age under the cover of religion or by parental consent.

Marrying underage girls mean child brides and their offspring will continue to be locked into an intergenerational cycle of poverty and illiteracy. On the other hand, ending child marriage enables them to finish school, delay motherhood and fulfil their dreams. Pakistan stands sixth among 20 countries with the highest number of child marriages, says Girls Not Brides, a network of CSOs aiming to end this scourge.

A Senate bill to end child marriage has not come a moment too soon.

Study after study shows that child marriage exposes young girls to violence, and often puts an end to their education. Child marriage is also a precursor to early pregnancy which may increase the risk of complications during childbirth.

Pakistan has legislated on several laws to end early marriages: it inherited the Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929 (CMRA), which was followed by the Muslim Family Laws Ordinance, 1961, that increased the age of consent to marriage from 14 to 16. In 2015, Punjab made amendments to the CMRA, empowering the police to file a complaint and stop an underage marriage from taking place. However, it did not allow them to make arrests, nor did it increase the age of marriage for girls.

Sindh did better. The Sindh Child Mar­riage Restraint Act, 2013 (SCMRA), in­­crea­sed the minimum age for marriage for girls to 18, and empowered the police to make arrests without waiting for a complaint to be registered. A similar bill, proposing to increase the legal age for marriage from 16 to 18 nationwide, was struck down in the National Assembly in 2014 and then again in 2017.

The issue recently got a shot in the arm when the Child Marriage Restraint (Amend­ment) Bill, 2018, was presented in the Senate. It defines a ‘child’ as anyone under 18 and by default, increases the minimum age of marriage to 18 for both girls and boys. It has also increased penalties; making forced child marriage a cognisable offence, with the police empowered to make an arrest without having to wait for a complaint. While it awaits approval, the Islama­bad Capital Territory, like KP and Baloch­istan, will only be bound by the CMRA, 1929.

But are laws enough to stop underage marriages from taking place?

Till there remains confusion regarding the CMRA, the SCMRA, personal laws, the validity of child marriages and the ever-present discriminatory laws pertaining to divorce and maintenance after the termination of a marriage, prohibition of child marriage rules will continue to be flouted, says the Centre for Reproductive Rights, working on these issues globally for 25 years now.

Drafting laws and getting them passed is easier than enforcing them. Many say political will is what is missing or misplaced. For instance, KP’s bill restraining underage marriage has continued to gather dust since the PTI’s first term in the province in 2013. KP first wants a nod of approval from the Council of Islamic Ideology before it is tabled.

Along with enforcing laws to restrain early marriages, more legislative and administrative work needs to be undertaken to resolve related issues such as dowry and bride price, marital rape, birth and marriage registration and mandatory schooling. Nadra personnel can go from door to door and incentivise birth registration by offering free services instead of later asking families to pay damages for late registration.

Once women are registered, a CNIC may be made a mandatory part of the nikahnama ensuring that the minimum age of marriage prevails. In Punjab and Sindh, a huge exercise is already under way to make nikah registrars (including clerics) aware of what the law says about underage marriages and the penalty incurred if they solemnise such unions.

Pakistan could also follow the example of the Indian state of Telangana where the government is providing 100,000 Indian rupees to brides belonging to less-privileged families. Those who are 18 or above with a certificate to prove they have completed 10th grade are eligible. Not only has it reduced child marriages, it has also increased marriage registrations.

A unified voice is needed to raise awareness of the harm underage marriage inflicts on our children, especially daughters, who are too young to become mothers and must be pulled out of this vortex of poverty, ­illiteracy and violence.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Karachi.

Published in Dawn, January 23rd, 2019