ISLAMABAD: The fate of the controversial bill seeking minimum marriageable age at 18 now lies in the hands of National Assembly Speaker Asad Qaiser as it is his prerogative to which standing committee he refers it to for deliberation and approval.

The Child Marriage Restraint (Amendment) Bill, 2018, introduced by Sherry Rehman of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), which had been passed by the Senate amid a noisy protest by the religious parties and some of the members of the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) on April 29, is now required to be transmitted to the National Assembly for its passage as per the Constitution.

The National Assembly will be required to pass the bill within 90 days after its laying before it.

The cracks within the political parties in the National Assembly over the issue had already been exposed when Dr Ramesh Kumar Vankwani of the PTI managed to introduce a similar legislation through a 72-50 vote after an intense discussion and its opposition by the government.

The supporters of the bill in all the parties want the speaker to refer it to the functional committee on human rights headed by PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari as they believe that if the bill is referred to any other committee its passage can become difficult.

Cracks within political parties over the issue have already been exposed

And this perception of theirs seems to be true as Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Ali Mohammad Khan, while speaking on behalf of Interior Minister retired Brig Ijaz Shah and Religious Affairs Minister Noorul Haq Qadri, had opposed the bill in the Senate as well as introduction of a similar bill by Dr Ramesh Kumar in the National Assembly, terming it un-Islamic.

The introduction of the bill in the NA had exposed a division even within the federal cabinet when Human Rights Minister Dr Shireen Mazari, without caring for the opposition by two ministers, argued in support of the bill and asked the chair to refer it to the committee concerned.

The two bills are expected to be sent to the same committee where they will be clubbed.

If the bill is referred to the human rights committee, it will be difficult for the government to oppose it, since Dr Mazari has already openly supported it in the assembly.

Senate Chairman Sadiq Sanjrani had also referred the bill after its introduction to the human rights committee headed by PPP’s Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar.

Sources said the NA speaker could refer the bill either to the committee on interior or law and justice. The committee on interior is headed by Raja Khurram Shahzad Nawaz of the PTI, whereas Riaz Fatiana, also from the ruling party, is the chairman of the committee on law and justice.

The sources said the chances of sending the bill to the committee on religious affairs were minimal. However, they said, if the speaker referred it to the religious affairs committee its passage would almost be impossible since it was headed by Asad Mehmood of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam and the religious affairs minister, who was the ex-officio member of the committee, had already opposed it in both the houses of parliament.

When the PPP and the religious parties have adopted a firm stance on the two bills, the voting in the Senate and at the time of its passage and then in the NA at the time of the introduction of a similar bill have clearly shown polarisation between the conservative and liberal members within the PTI and PML-N.

The PTI members had abstained from voting in the Senate, whereas its members in the NA gave a divided vote. Same was the case with the PML-N members.

Federal Minister for Science and Technology Fawad Chaudhry expressed his dismay over the opposition to the bill by some of the PTI members, including the ministers, and termed it a “scary moment” for society.

“What hopes can one really attribute to a society whose 50 elected representatives and even ministers actually voted for under age marriage? Should be enough to give sleepless nights to the World and intelligentsia of our own... really a scary moment,” Mr Chaudhry tweeted on Wednesday.

When contacted, PML-N spokesperson Marriyum Aurangzeb, who had voted in favour of the bill in the NA, said the party members remained divided as the issue had so far not been discussed in the parliamentary party meetings. She said the party would come out with a clear stance after deliberating on the matter in a couple of days.

Article 70(1) of the Constitution says: “A bill with respect to any matter in the Federal Legislative List may originate in either House (of the Parliament) and shall, if it is passed by the House in which it originated, be transmitted to the other House; and, if the bill is passed without amendment by the other House also, it shall be presented to the President for assent.”

The sub-clause 3 of Article 70 says: “If a bill transmitted to a House under clause (1) is rejected or is not passed within ninety days of its laying in the House or a bill sent to a House with amendments is not passed by that House with such amendments, the bill, at the request of the House in which it originated, shall be considered in a joint sitting and if passed by the votes of the majority of the members present and voting in the joint sitting it shall be presented to the President for assent.”

Published in Dawn, May 2nd, 2019

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