Speakers at a Shirkat Gah-Women Resource Centre consultation on Wednesday asked the government to make 18 the ‘safe age of marriage’ for both boys and girls.
They asked that amendments be made to the Child Marriage Restraint Act 1929, in which the minimum age of marriage is 16 years.
Other recommendations included an increase in jail time – from a month’s imprisonment to two years of rigorous imprisonment – and the fine – from Rs1,000 to at least Rs100,000 – for violations.
Fauzia Viqar, the Shirkat Gah advocacy director, said that the study, which looks at how early marriage impacts health of mother and child, education and society, had been conducted in Sindh, Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.
In cases of girls, she said, early marriage meant they could not continue their studies or pursue a career, adding that in case they were already working, marriage meant giving up their career.
Khawar Mumtaz, the centre’s chief executive officer, started off with a presentation.
Quoting from the Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey (2007), she said while 50 per cent of women (between 15 and 29 years) were married at the age of 20, around seven per cent become mothers at 15.
For boys, she said, early marriages mean they are given a lot of responsibility prematurely.
Mumtaz said that education could play a crucial role in increasing the age of marriage. “If a girl completes her secondary education, she might want to go to college. Not every girl will, but at least some will prefer education over marriage and fight for it,” she said.
She also stressed the need for training nikahkhwans and marriage registrars.
A nikahkhwan from Sindh talked about nikahkhwans crossing out sections in the decree pertaining to the consent of the girl, dower and maintenance.
He said that in his village dower was usually set at Rs1,000. “Neither party questions it. If the husband is unhappy with the marriage, he doesn’t think twice about divorcing the woman because Rs1,000 is not a huge amount to pay.”
He said that he had recently come across a 13-year-old boy who was forced to marry his widowed sister-in-law. The boy has now refused to live with her, he said. “Had the boy not been forced, the woman wouldn’t have had to go through this ordeal,” he said. “I think both the man and woman should be in their 20s at the time of their marriage,” he added.
Mumtaz said customs like watta satta (exchange), pait likkhi (decisions about who the child would marry before its birth), vani and swara were behind the majority of under age marriages. Poverty, property disputes, forced conversions and “inadequate” laws and non-implementation also contribute to the trend of early marriages.
Viqar said that 25 cases per month were reported, on average, in Sindh of minority members being forced into marriage after conversion to Islam.
Zakia Shahnawaz, adviser to the chief minister on women’s empowerment, promised to amend the Act.
Mohyuddin Ahmad Wani, the Information, Culture and Youth Affairs secretary, suggested that school-going children be educated about the consequences of early marriage. He also recommended the use of visual media.
“Nothing works better than a picture or a film. I am sure a 40-second video clip will have more effect on children than four pages of literature,” he said.
Qadeer Baig of the World Population Fund cautioned against “just looking at the averages.” “Our work won’t be finished until no one is married before they reach the legal age,” he said.
Amna Aksheed, Rahnuma-Family Planning Association director (Adolescence), shared minutes of the association’s recent discussions with ulemas in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
She said it was important to educate men – “since they are the decision makers in the majority of cases” – to bring about the desired results.
Viqar then concluded the consultation reiterating the demand that 18 years be declared the safe age of marriage. “It’s the legal age to have an identity card made, to vote, get a passport or register for the Benazir Income Support Programme,” she said.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 29th, 2012.