The fifth Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) of the United Nations which deals with gender inequality calls for entailing women and girls equal rights to economic resources and ensuring their full participation at all levels in economic decisions. One important step in this regard is the elimination of the harmful practice of child marriage. Child marriage is still widely practised in parts of Pakistan even though the incidence of the practice is significantly lower in the country compared to other South Asian countries. Over the past decades, we have seen a substantial fall in the proportion of girls who are married off by their 18th birthday. According to the Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey (PDHS), about 39% of married women between the ages of 15 and 49 are reported to have gotten married before the age of 18, as compared to 54% in 1990.
There is a close link between child marriage, poverty and urbanisation. In 1990, child marriage was present in similar proportions across households regardless of their financial status. The incidence of child marriage ranged from 48.9% among the richest households to 56.5% among the poorest. By 2017 however, the patterns had clearly diverged: on the one hand, the practice of child marriage among the poorest households has shown little sign of change as more than one in two (54.9%) women in the households belonging to this group still get married before the age of 18. On the other hand, the incidence in other financial groups has substantially altered. The proportion of women from the richest households who married before 18 (19.4%) today, is a third of the number of women found belonging to the poorest households and half that of women from middle-class households (37.5%). Child marriage is therefore increasingly concentrated among the poorest households.
At the same time, child marriage is becoming a more rural phenomenon. In 1990, 47.3% of women living in urban centres were married before the age of 18 as against 56.4% of women in the rural areas. Although the proportion of women married off early since then has declined in both areas (29% in urban areas, 41.1% in rural areas), the fall has been steeper in the urban areas leading to a greater urban-rural divide.
This divergence is also reflected at the provincial level. The difference in the incidence of child marriage between the four provinces of Pakistan was already substantial in 1990. In Punjab, the incidence of child marriage was 49% as compared to 65.1% in Sindh. Since then, the practice of child marriage in these two more urbanised provinces has fallen sharply while the two less urbanised provinces of Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa have lagged behind. As a result, the inter-provincial cleavage has worsened. In 2017, 29.8% of married women in Punjab had gotten married before the age of 18 as compared to 49.1% in Balochistan.
An important manifestation of the evolving profile of early-marrying women pertains to the current age of these women. While the proportion of the young cohort (20-29 years) among early-marrying women aged 15-45 fell from 39% in 1990 to 34% in 2017, the corresponding share of the oldest cohort of women of child-bearing age (40-49 years) rose from 21% to 28%. This decreasing share of younger women among early-marrying women reflects the gradual decline in the practice of child marriage in Pakistan.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 10th, 2019.