- Child marriage is beyond understanding and acceptance
Early last month, police claimed to have taken into custody a 40-year-old man in Badin who had been attempting to marry a minor aged 10-year-old. Reportedly, when a raid was conducted at the wedding ceremony, the child was being forced into marriage with Abdul Khaliq, a previously married man and a father of three. The police took Abdul Khaliq and the nikhakhwan (cleric) into custody, with Khaliq claiming to have paid Rs20,000 to the girl’s father for wedding expenses.
Every day, around the world, more than 20,000 children are getting married, underage and illegally and one in every three girls in the developing world marry before the age of 18. According to research reports, including those by the World Bank, in countries where there are laws restricting the practice, 7.5 million girls every year are married below the minimum age permitted. And in some cases, even the law is debated upon by some who think that maintaining a minimum marriageable age is not necessary.
A proposal in Iraq’s parliament to scrap the minimum age for a Muslim girl to marry has recently provoked outrage among critics. A 1959 law, passed shortly after the fall of the Iraqi monarchy, transferred the right to decide on family affairs from religious authorities to the state and its judiciary. But the conservatives are now proposing an amendment which would authorise the marriage of any girl only with the consent of the religious leaders.
A similar debate ensued among senators in Pakistan when an amendment was proposed in the Child Marriage Restraint Act by raising the age restriction for girls from 16 to 18. Still, the amended bill was approved last month by the Senate Standing Committee on Interior, as well as by Punjab and Sindh assemblies. Why then, some statesmen in Pakistan believed that the minimum marriageable age for a girl could be lower than 18, whereas in Iraq, there have been suggestions that there should be no minimum age at all?
Iraqi parliamentarians in support of the bill argue that Islam ‘makes no mention of age and stipulates only that she (the bride) must be pubescent, capable of deciding, and have the accord of her tutor and a judge’. Their Pakistani counterparts gave similar arguments when they opposed the amendment in the Child Marriage Restraint Bill. They asserted that Islam has allowed the marriage of pubescent girls from the age of nine. What they do not regard, even remotely, is that this is the 21st century and with time, changes in rules and regulations can take place, a phenomenon to which Islam does not object, also evident from of Qiyas (opinion) and Ijma (consensus) – sources of Islamic law.
- According to The Family Planning Association of Pakistan, one woman dies every 20 minutes during childbirth, and the major cause for high maternal mortality ratio — 276 per 100,000 live births — is child marriage
Dr Khalid Zaheer, an eminent Muslim scholar based in Lahore, is of the opinion that the society should not only decide the age at which a person is declared physically mature, but also suggest ways on how to test their intelligence level. ‘If a girl below the age of 18 is physically and mentally mature to get married she should be allowed to do so. However, if the government wishes to set a specific age limit, there is no harm in doing that either. In Surah Al-Nisa, it is mentioned that when orphans reach puberty and are to be handed over their inheritance, their intelligence level should be tested to see whether they are capable of managing their assets. Since after marriage, a girl or woman is expected to manage the household, it is natural to expect that she should also be intellectually mature enough to handle the responsibility.’
But more than a burden on the intellect, early age marriages are said to be leading to a number of social and health concerns within the society. A report from the international charity Save the Children shows that girls as young as 10 years old being forced to marry men much older than themselves, are exposed to domestic violence, abuse and rape.
According to The Family Planning Association of Pakistan, one woman dies every 20 minutes during childbirth, and the major cause for high maternal mortality ratio — 276 per 100,000 live births — is child marriage. Child Marriage is also seen to be contributing to a larger number of births in a family. According to a report by World Bank’s lead economist Quentin Wodon, child marriage contributes to higher total fertility ‘as women marrying earlier tend to both have children earlier and bear more children over their lifetime than if they had married later. Analysis across fifteen countries shows that, toward the end of their reproductive life, women who married at age thirteen have on average 26.4 percent more live births than if they had married at eighteen or later, all other things being equal’.
Article 26 of the 2009 OIC Khartoum Declaration: Towards a Better Future for Our Children sets out a clear path encouraging Islamic countries to ‘take the necessary measures to eliminate all forms of discrimination against girls and all harmful traditional or customary practices, such as child marriage and female genital mutilation, in the light of the relevant declarations, instruments and conventions’. The legal age for marriage in many Islamic countries is 18 or above, such as in Jordan, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Oman and UAE.
Pakistan has a precedent set much earlier than its fellow Muslim countries, as it was Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who drafted and introduced the first Child Marriages Restraint Act in the Sub-Continent in 1929, as a member of the British Indian Legislative Assembly. Presently, Pakistan is also a signatory to United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) — which identifies a ‘child’ as ‘less than 18 years’ — as well as Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women – two international human rights agreements which prohibit child marriage.
It seems that the fundamentalists have turned a deaf ear as well as a blind eye to the legal frameworks, examples from other Muslim countries, social and health concerns, together with our failed targets of population control program – reasons convincing enough to abolish child marriage. Still, a moment of compassion should question the mother of the innocent child bride: When will the vicious cycle of a once child bride marrying off her child end? The father who willingly accepts monetary gifts as wedding expenses of a child marriage should be asked: Will that money pay off the humiliation, the shock, the tears of his child when she is made to behave like a person much older than her age? The clerics who claim that signs of puberty in a girl are enough to consider her getting married should be enquired: Are those early signs a signal that the child is ready to bear physical changes of maturity — of which she has little or no understanding, instead of hinting to the child and her guardians to help her prepare for adulthood? If she is given at least a few more years to attain education and mature skills, won’t she be able to contribute more towards a better society?
While unfortunately, many older men force much younger women or worse young girls into a relationship to prove their virility and at the same time, to secure a stronger and capable partner to provide support, what compels a man to give away his own child in marriage to another man probably as old as himself is beyond understanding and acceptance. A girl of 10 years old is neither skilled adequately with housekeeping attributes nor any other worthy of being a source of income, neither does she possess sufficient knowledge to be considered literate. Most importantly, her mind does not mature enough at that age to be able to manage a demanding relationship. At that age, she would have just started to learn how to take care of herself on her own – taking care of another person’s needs happens to be too much of a burden on a young girl’s shoulders. The outcome in such cases usually is a submissive, lifeless being, deprived of her childhood.
It is a well-known fact that in pre Islamic Arabia, a female child was unwanted and many girls were buried alive soon after their birth. Today, those who cloak themselves and their decisions in the shroud of religion and say they have substantial evidence to back their claim that Islam permits child marriages, are performing an act akin to the medieval Arab non-believer: burying a child alive, by killing her dreams, killing her innocence, killing her childhood. This can and should be stopped.