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ISLAMABAD, Sept 10: In Pakistan, early marriages have become a form of violence against women. About 37 per cent women in the country get married before reaching the age of 18 years.

This was stated by participants of a workshop here on Monday.

They said Pakistanis were more involved in forced marriages as compared to people of other Muslim countries. Even in Europe, member of the Pakistani community force their daughters to marry a man of their choice, creating embarrassment for the community.

The consultation workshop on ‘Girl child marriages’ was organised jointly by ActionAid, Plan International and Bedari to develop and endorse a five-year campaign to bring about changes at policy and programme level on the issue.

Saleem Malik from Bedari said: “We should not look towards the so-called scholars for guidance but make human rights a standard.” He said every religion aimed at protecting people’s basic human rights. Child marriages bring a lot of misery to the children, especially the girl child. It is a curse and should be avoided at all costs.

“Muslims have been divided into 60 different sects and every sect has different customs and conditions regarding child marriages so we have to find some solution.”

Uzma Tahir from ActionAid said child marriages increased problems for the families and affected the whole life of a girl.

Samina Sardar from Plan International said girl child marriages should be strictly discouraged and action should be taken against people involved in it.

Imtiaz Ahmad from SPARC and Qadeer Baig from Rutger’s WPF shared their experiences and the best practices with the audience. The participants were informed that customs and traditions like Vani, Swara, Vulvar and Watta Satta played a significant role in girls’ early marriages. Girls are seen as a burden on the family, and are married off at an early age. In some cases, grooms are required to pay money to the father of the girl. Dispute settlement is another important reason; girls are given to solve disputes.

Literacy rate in Pakistan is very low, so people do not have awareness about the effects of child marriages. Birth registration system is very ineffective and non-responsive and it gives room for manipulation regarding the exact age of the girl. Besides, marriage registration process is weak, so marriage registrar and the union council officials do not perform their duties. Most of the people are not aware about child marriage act and they think girls should marry as early as possible.

Qindeel Shujaat, legal adviser on human rights, said legislation should be done to discourage child marriages.

“According to ‘Child  Marriages Restraint Act 1929’, if a person having age around 40 years marries a girl under 15 years of age, he will face imprisonment for one month or Rs1,000 fine. However, there is four years imprisonment for the person above 50 years of age,” he said.

The participants recommended that the existing law should be reviewed to make it responsive to the current needs.

Talking to Dawn, Qadeer Baig said his NGO had conducted a survey in six districts of rural areas and reached the conclusion that in rural areas 61 per cent women get married before reaching the age of 18 years.