A RECENT report by Unicef reveals that the number of child marriages in South Asia has halved from where it stood 25 years ago. Undoubtedly, the on-ground efforts of activists and NGO workers, as well as of lawmakers —in particular, women politicians — have borne some fruit and created much-needed change in society. Despite such gains, however, the practice continues in many part of this country, as children’s lives and futures continue to be in danger. Just recently, heartbreaking images of two girls were being circulated on social media after it was claimed that they were exchanged to settle a personal dispute in Sindh. There have also been instances of underage Hindu girls forced to become brides after converting or being made to convert, which is in complete violation of the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act. To its credit, Sindh is the only province to have successfully increased the age of marriage to 18, while the other provinces continue to delay the matter on some excuse or the other. Punjab introduced amendments to the existing colonial-era law, but is yet to increase the age of marriage for girls from 16 to 18. Confusion over who is classified as a child in the eyes of the law remains due to many contradictory laws and continued resistance from religious groups and conservative politicians, which does not make legislating on the issue any easier. This is despite the fact that Pakistan is a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which clearly states that anyone under the age of 18 is classified as a child.
Child marriage is a deeply harmful practice that disproportionately affects girls and has been likened to a culturally acceptable form of slavery that perpetuates or even legalises child rape under the guise of marriage. Not only are young girls unable to pursue their fundamental right of completing their education, they are also subjected to difficult household work and responsibilities before they have even developed their full mental and physical capacities. Moreover, underage girls go on to face health complications during and after childbirth. Seen as a financial ‘burden’ on their families, they are married off early to escape oppressive poverty, or they are used to settle disputes as if they were the property of adults to be bartered and sold, and not vulnerable individuals with rights of their own that need to be fiercely protected.
Published in Dawn, December 5th, 2019