In Pakistan, almost 30 per cent of all marriages fall in the category of child marriages and most of them are taking place in Sindh – ironically as parents seek to protect their girls.
Early marriage is seen as a way for parents to ensure that their girls have a man to care for them, socially and financially. But what parents don’t realise is that early marriages actually render their daughters vulnerable to illness, poverty and gender inequality.
“When the government does not allow children below 18 years to drive, how can they allow girls younger than that to be married,” exclaimed Amna Akhsheed, who is the director of adolescent and women empowerment with Rahnuma-FPAP. This organisation and AusAID organized a workshop at the Marriott hotel on Wednesday.
Child marriage is defined as one below the age of 18 years, before a girl is physically, psychologically and physiologically ready to shoulder the responsibilities. Legally child marriages are prohibited under the Child Marriages Restraint Act (CMRA) of 1929 that declares the minimum age as 16 years. But the Shariah law sets the standard at puberty, that in most cases starts at the age of 12 to 13 years.
The punishment for child marriage is at the most one month in jail or a fine of Rs1,000, or both, which is hardly enough to deter the act.
Additionally, the conviction doesn’t even serve to nullify the marriage. “How can a girl who doesn’t even have any say in her marriage ask for a divorce or separation?”
Nabila Malick, the director of advocacy and donor liaison, said that child marriages have a direct impact on six out of eight Millennium Development Goals, the most important being the maternal mortality rate: 276 per 100,000 births in Pakistan.
Rahnuma-FPAP CEO Syed Kamal Shah pitched in to say that the common argument that we give is that it was Allah’s will if a woman dies in childbirth. “I ask what about Allah’s will for maternal mortality in those countries which have a zero rate? Does Allah only will the deaths of women here?”
Malick lamented that when a few hundred of people die because of dengue or spurious medicines, it becomes a national emergency, but no attention is given to this issue as a result of which a woman is dying every 20 minutes.
Giving the government’s perspective, MPA Humera Alwani, who was the guest of honour, said that an increase in population was the root cause of all our problems. “I have spent almost ten years in the Sindh Assembly but hardly ever heard any debate on this issue,” she said.
Alwani shared that the rich and poor alike shared the belief that marrying their daughters off early was the best solution to protect them from society. Alwani said that while the ministry of population welfare exists, its efforts are hardly making a dent.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 23rd, 2012.