THE Federal Shariat Court’s latest ruling should lay to rest a nearly century-long debate over an issue directly impacting the well-being of girls and society as a whole. On Thursday, a three-judge bench dismissed a petition against certain sections of the Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929, that fixes 16 years as the minimum marriageable age. In a 10-page verdict, the court stated in unequivocal terms that setting a minimum age for marriage is not against Islamic injunctions. Basing much of its reasoning on the importance that Islam places on education, the verdict observed that the CMRA helps girls at least get a basic education and cited the example of several other Islamic countries with similar legislation on their statute books.
While child marriage affects both boys and girls, in the latter’s case it has multifaceted adverse consequences directly linked with the patriarchal culture in Pakistan and the rigours of childbearing. There is overwhelming evidence of the harm the practice can inflict on the physical, intellectual and mental health of underage females. Almost always, girls in this part of the world are married to adult men, sometimes much older than them, and are thus extremely vulnerable to marital rape and domestic violence. They are also at increased risk of sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy-related complications during childbirth and having babies with health problems. Becoming wives and mothers before they are physically and emotionally ready to take on these roles robs girls of their childhood and a fulfilling future. It is for good reason that underage marriage is described as a social evil. Nevertheless, the practice has always had its proponents among the more retrogressive segments of society. The former chairman of the Council of Islamic Ideology, Maulana Sherani, reignited what should have been a long-buried debate when he said that laws defining a minimum age for marriage should be repealed. In his view, girls as young as nine were eligible to be married “as long as signs of puberty were visible”. Fortunately, Pakistan’s legislators have shown themselves to be more abreast with the times and imbued with common sense. The minimum age for marriage remains 16 and 18 years for girls and boys respectively, except for Sindh where it is 18 for both — an eminently logical stance consistent with the age of majority in Pakistan and the country’s international commitments to eliminate child marriage. Other provinces too should consider doing the same.
Published in Dawn, October 31st, 2021