Our collective responsibility
Most child marriages at a young age take place in the remote areas of Balochistan, interior Sindh, KP and South Punjab. While these figures may vary, it is a fact that such practice is largely associated with the rural area rather than the urban settings. In such marriages girls’ ages range from 7 to16 years. In 2012, 75 cases of child marriage were reported by different media agencies; of these 43 percent children were 11 to 15 years old and 32 per cent were from the age group of 6 to 10 years. According to UNICEF one out of three girls living in South Asia is already married or in union. Such dismal figures portray a lack of will of the authorities to curb this curse of child marriage.
These early marriages sometimes take place due to illiteracy and poverty but they happen majorly due to the need of preserving an archaic mindset. This mindset stems from guarding a woman’s honour and exchanging her in return for settling a dispute. Changing a conservative and an antiquated mindset is never easy. The gender disparity faced by women in any walk of life in South Asian countries such as Pakistan has statistics that cannot be written on. Despite the fact that the cause of women rights is time and again advocated in parliament, bills are passed and laws are amended, they are forgotten right away and the issue is swept under the carpet. The scrutiny of neither the laws nor the campaigning is rapid enough to mobilise a change.
After the 18th Constitutional Amendment in 2010, the issue of child marriage has been made a provincial subject. The Prevention of Anti-Women Practices (Criminal Law Amendment) Act 2011 has strengthened protection for women against discrimination and harmful traditional practices. It criminalises forced marriages, child marriages and other customary practices that are discriminatory towards women such as swara (bride price), wani etc. While the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act 2013 may have risen the age of a girl to marry to 18, it has failed to provide for a heavy fine. The law till date only provides for fine up to Rs45,000 which is insufficient to evade the deeply embedded practice of child marriage of a girl. Similarly, the Punjab Marriage Restraint (Amendment) Bill 2015 provides for fine of Rs50,000. Both these amounts as fine are insufficient.
More than reforming words of the law on paper, it is essential for reforming and advocating a reform in the mindset of the people, especially men. This overhaul will be possible by considering women as human being first rather than property or possession that can be exchanged to maintain goodwill and a twisted sense of honour amongst the society. In any society the culture and how people think about something impact the attitudes to a large extent. What offers a ray of light in such oppressive situation is the thought of progression through education. Spending on girls’ education is essential to withstand the future challenges in Pakistan. As the writer Khalid Hosseni says: “Marriages can wait, education cannot.”
It is true that weak legislation, lack of implementation of the existing laws, tribal and feudal structure of society, lack of awareness in the public about harmful effects of child marriages, extreme poverty and a lack of will in the government has led to this worsening situation of child marriages. Most of the time the birth of girl is not registered which provides room for manipulation of their age at the time of marriage. In addition, there are as such no central, independent and strong child rights bodies that could monitor child rights violations including the issue of child marriages. The lack of control on girl child marriages also impacts the social and economic fabric of the society. The population growth rate in Pakistan, at 1.95 percent, is already higher than the average of South Asian countries. With early marriages leading to earlier pregnancies, it could increase population which is socially and economically crippling and dampening.
The police needs to be sensitised as well on the issue of child marriages. The law gives powers to police to arrest offenders and investigate the case yet this rarely happens in reality. The recent amendment in the Punjab Bill highlights the process of seeking Union Council’s intervention, which is an inept legal complication and destroys the entire process of seeking justice. The victim gets no refuge and is stuck in a vortex of threats stemming from the offender, leaving the victim helpless in accepting the established norm.
One of the prime recommendations towards curbing child marriages is to increase the punishment for anyone solemnising these marriages. The irony here is that while Punjab has amended the act on child marriages, it has still failed to raise the age of the girl from 16 to 18. The law needs to be designed in a manner that incorporates heavy fine as a minimum. Punishment should be made applicable to all the parties involved in a child marriage, including the parents of both the groom and the bridegroom, and the person who is an accomplice to such a marriage. It is essential that the law is clear on the legal age for marriage for boys and girls which ought to be same i.e., 18 years. Such gender disparity and discrepancies within the law reflect poorly on the policymakers and the legislators. The haphazard structure of the Punjab Bill needs evaluation as well as stricter measures for effective and accountable implementation on ground rather than merely on paper. This is critical to protect the future of our girls, and the generations to come.
Very well written ! Keep up the good work !
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