WHEN custom undermines welfare, especially for girls, it should be abandoned. Far too often, the guardians of tradition repudiate empowerment, making it incumbent upon political parties to highlight regressive issues such as child marriage in their poll campaigns. A UN report released in May states that South Asia “still needs 55 years to eliminate the practice if it does not speed up”. Thus, last week, desperate circumstances forced civil society groups to demand that political outfits include the juvenile marriage restraint issue in party manifestos and contribute towards passing relevant bills from the Balochistan Assembly where the Child Marriage Restraint Bill, 2023, is long pending. Under federal law and the laws of three provinces, the minimum legal age for marriage is 16 for girls; only Sindh stipulates 18 years.
In Pakistan, the cost of being a female — poor healthcare and education — is made worse with underage marriage. Our patriarchal social sphere leaves some 80m females vulnerable to premature wedlock and forced conversions. For over a decade, successive KP governments failed to move past the colonial Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929, and the proposed Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Child Marriage Restraint Bill, 2021, fell through due to resistance from religious circles. In 2015, Punjab made a timid attempt with the Child Marriage Restraint (Amendment) Act, 2015. But, instead of repealing the archaic CMRA 1929, it left the marriage age untouched. At the other end, Sindh has commendable pro-women legislation, yet incidents of juvenile nuptials and forced conversions soar. The time is now for political parties to recognise that such laws legitimise child abuse; they empower elders to thrust consent on young girls. Political parties must craft sensitive narratives around the perils of these practices in the run-up to elections, and pledge enforcement of progressive edicts with robust implementation once in power. Women cannot live by primitive norms, trapped in lost childhoods and a bleak future.
Published in Dawn, December 11th, 2023