Doctrine divides, Action unites

 

  May 2014

 

No More Child Brides in Pakistan! Bravo Sindh Assembly

Bushra Khaliq
 


The provincial assembly of Pakistan’s Sindh Province recently
passed legislation prohibiting the marriage of girls under the
age of 18. Will Pakistan’s other provinces follow this precedent?
(Photo from www.wunrn.com)

The provincial assembly of Sindh has taken the daring lead on April 28, 2014, that deserves appreciation for becoming Pakistan’s first elected assembly to have passed a bill restraining child marriages for those who are under 18 years of age. The passage of the bill has come on the heels of a controversy that was triggered after the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) had ruled that the prohibition of underage marriage was un-Islamic.

The new law will go a long way to help reduce the menace of child marriages. After the 18th Constitutional Amendment, the issue of child marriage is considered to be a provincial subject, and the Sindh Assembly has adopted the correct stance by enacting a much-needed piece of legislation and putting a ban on the unbridled practice of child marriage in the province.

However, the other three provinces are yet to address this issue. With the prevalence of approximately 30 percent of girls in the country married off as child brides, the situation is even worse in the interior of Sindh Province with a prevalence rate of 37 percent of child marriages as opposed to 21 percent for urban areas. Therefore, the new law is a welcome step and may prove to be a remedy to the vicious cycle and ugly practice of girl brides. The credit goes particularly to Sharmila Farooqi and Rubina Qaim Khani and all human and women rights activists who have been highlighting the harmful practice of girl child marriage in the country, particularly in poor, rural communities of Pakistan.

Under the new legislation, the Sindh Child Marriages Restraint Bill of 2013, “any groom who solemnizes marriage with a girl less than 18 years of age, parents of such a groom or those facilitating contracting of such a marriage will be given a maximum of three years of rigorous punishment but not less than two years.” The offence is cognizable, non-bailable and non-compoundable. Anyone can file a complaint against such a marriage in the court of a judicial magistrate, and the court will ensure the case is decided within 90 days. It is pertinent to mention is that the previous law, the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929, sets the minimum age of marriage for girls as 16 years and does not allow police to intervene directly in underage marriage, implying that sharia law is to be consulted.

The new legislation is also a befitting reply to the CII that declared that the ban on child marriage is against religious principles. The CII chairman, Maulana Mohammad Khan Sherani, said in a recent statement, “The girls can get married at an early age. Once a girl is mature (attains the age of puberty), she can enter into marriage and is allowed to take a husband. The laws limiting the age of marriage are un-Islamic.”

Human and women rights activists have widely condemned the anti-women outbursts of the CII and have demanded the abolition of this so-called constitutional body. Totally blind to the repercussions of this unbridled menace, members of the CII and religious clergies are oblivious to the health risks associated with early sexual activity and childbearing. These so-called scholars are never ready to think about the miseries of child brides, who are more likely to be victims of domestic violence, sexual abuse and social isolation. Often uneducated and unskilled, these young girls are completely dependent on their husbands and in-laws to survive, rendering them further vulnerable to various shades of exploitation.

The multiple reasons of child marriages are deeply rooted in poverty, gender discrimination, conflicting laws, religious norms and in centuries-old patriarchal traditions with devastating effects on girls’ lives. These ugly traditions include swara, wani, sang chati, paitlikkhi, watta satta, vulvaljai and khasaniyesoogo that are unchecked in many parts of Pakistan, particularly in rural Sindh, Balochistan and Punjab Provinces and the country’s northwestern tribal areas. These black traditions hit hard the women through whom young girls are exchanged to settle family or tribal or clan disputes and feuds.

As a result, every year thousands of preteen and teenage girls become the wives of older men. Young girls are married when they are still children and as a result are denied fundamental human rights. Early marriage compromises their development and often results in early pregnancy and social isolation with little education reinforcing the gendered nature of poverty. Required to perform strenuous amounts of domestic work, under pressure to demonstrate fertility, married girls and child mothers face constrained decision-making and reduced life choices. Both boys and girls are affected by child marriage, but the issue impacts girls in far larger numbers, with more intensity and is more wide ranging.

Early marriage is a socially established practice that has been carried on from generation to generation. Governments are often either unable to enforce existing laws or to rectify discrepancies between national laws and customary and religious laws. Most often child marriage is considered a family matter that is governed by religion and culture, which ensures its continuity. It remains therefore a widely ignored violation of the rights of girls and women.

The real challenge therefore for the government of Sindh is now to implement the law in both letter and spirit. It will have to make underage marriage a valid basis for divorce and provide statutory relief to victims of swara, vani and other similar practices. It must ensure the registration of all births and marriages as per provisions of the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) Ordinance of 2000 through simplified procedures, and it must implement the ban on verdicts of jirgas and panchayats and identify support mechanisms within existing structures to ensure that the law of the unified age of 18 is implemented after it is passed.


* Bushra Khaliq is executive director of Women in Struggle Empowerment (WISE) who can be reached via e-mail at bushra.khaliq1@gmail.com .

 

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