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The Curse of Child Marriage

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Pakistan has an appalling record when it comes to the protection of the rights of the child. Whilst boys and girls are routinely abused, it is girls that proportionately suffer more in respect of early marriage. Child marriage is nothing new and has been present in this culture for millennia, but longevity does not confer legitimacy, and it is embedded in institutional gender inequalities and so called ‘traditional’ customs and it needs to stop – which is far easier said than done. Any challenge to child marriage is a challenge to powerful cultural imperatives, principal among which is the nebulous concept of the protection of family honour, the ‘honour’ of the family being vested in the girl children.

Family members feel obliged, indeed compelled, to marry girls at an early age to prevent any independent sexual transgression by the girl which may have unwanted outcomes. Early marriage short-circuits female choice and maintains the invidious concept of a woman as an object, rather than a person in their own right. A swift move to the home of the new husband relieves parents of any responsibility to educate their daughter, who is now passed beyond their care. Girl children are also used to pay debts and erase blood feuds in Sindh, Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa in the practice known as dand or vada, vani and swara. Any child thus married has their misery compounded as they are forced to live a life in which they are forever regarded as a child of the enemy. Theoretically all such marriages contravene the Child Marriage Restraint Act 1929 and section 310-A of the Pakistan Penal Code 1860. If convicted – a rarity – offenders may be imprisoned for up to seven years and fined Rs500,000.

There are no reliable or definitive statistics regarding the problem, but the limited data that is available presents a grim picture. About 24 per cent of females nationally are married before they reach the age of majority – 18. Between 2000 and 2010 at least 7 per cent of girls were married before they were 15, and some estimates suggest that 30% all marriages of females can be classified as child marriages with the highest prevalence being in Sindh. Also not formally counted or documented but currently in the headlines is the practice of kidnapping girls from one of the minority groups, typically Hindu or Christian, and then forcing them to marry males of a different faith to that they were born into, a practice no less invidious than that recorded above.

Anecdotally there has been a decline in child marriage in the last decade but it remains common in undeveloped and rural areas. Despite the obvious detriment to girls individually and to the wider impact on development generally successive governments have been slow to move on the matter, governance being in the hands of feudals that have little or no interest in changing the status-quo coupled with an Establishment that has little interest either.

The incumbent government to its credit has at least made an attempt to revise matters in terms of legislation. In November 2018 the human rights minister Shireen Mazari proposed a bill which has now been sent to the Senate that seeks to end all marriage of girls under 18. Marriageable age for girls is currently 16, and for boys 18, itself highly discriminatory. There has been nothing but a ringing silence since the bill was passed to the upper house, which is of course populated by a hefty majority of highly conservative men.

Two things need to happen. Firstly the government needs to support and move forward the bill currently gathering dust in the Senate. It could be there for years unless it finds a champion. The PTI government may have a long list of ‘to-do’s but this is one that must be prioritised.

Secondly, develop a countervailing narrative to the current cultural fascism that condemns girl children to an early marriage. The construction of a narrative that speaks to all of Pakistan with the same voice, and delivers a message to all ears that marrying girls underage benefits nobody, young or old, and is an albatross around the national neck. A disgrace that must be in future worn with shame rather than the warped pride that is currently the case. We roundly condemn this pernicious practice and will support and encourage those individuals and organisations that fight against it. The electronic media are going to play a key role in the coming battle and social media in Pakistan is developing to the point at which it is a potent tool that politicians can ill-afford to ignore. There is a young and IT savvy electorate much less likely to be swayed by traditional alliances, their voices – and votes – are going to be crucial in the future protection of the girl-children of Pakistan and they have our support.

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