KARACHI: It might look like child’s play but little girls dressed up in bridal gowns and jewellery are too often married off to men much older than them in a terrifying aspect of reality.
Some parents may marry them off because they have no money or give their hands in marriage to settle disputes. Other motivating factors include family politics or inheritance battles.
While the exact number of cases remains unknown, it can be regarded as a common phenomenon with roughly 58 per cent taking place in rural and 27 per cent in urban areas.
Among the provinces, Sindh tops the list. The Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child (Sparc), an NGO that focused specifically on the issue this year, reported that around 50 cases of child marriages were noted in Sindh alone, out of which 25 were of a “significant nature”. The NGO, that thwarted 18 attempted child marriages with successful intervention, has been working on the loopholes in the laws governing the offence.
In March this year, 10-year-old Shazia was traded by her mother Zahooran for Rs100,000. The groom, a resident of Bhangho Behan village in Khairpur, who ‘bought’ his young wife, said it was their custom. At least six other girls in the neighbouring villages had been married off in a similar manner, he maintained.
In another instance, Koonj and Asma, six and seven years old, respectively, were married to two men of an aggrieved party in Dadu to pacify the dispute over free-will marriages.
Talking to The Express Tribune, Sohail Ahmed Abro, provincial manager of SPARC, discussed the observations made by his NGO. According to the Child Marriage Restraint Act 1929, child marriage is not a cognisable offence, which means that the police cannot intervene directly. Also, there remains a disparity in the legal ages at which girls and boys can be married. According to the law, girls who are 16 years and older and boys 18 years and older can be legally married.
Abro said that when the police intervene in such cases, they usually arrest the “legal perpetrators” who are committing the child marriage — both the bride and the groom. These young boys and girls, however, are the victims. Being sent to jail or a protection institution is hardly justice, he added.
Also, the penalty for the crime is a meagre imprisonment of one month and a fine of Rs1,000. “This hardly discourages the offence,” Abro said.
Many people in Sindh consider early marriages a cultural tradition, he said. However, the offence is also prevalent in other provinces but the issue stays in the background because these cases are not brought out by the media.
Pakistan has the Muslim Family Law as well as the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929 on its statute books. Moreover, the country also became a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of Children in 1990, in which early marriage refers to the marriage of people less than 18 years of age. The government’s adherence to the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), should also have served as a deterrent against child marriages. These promises and laws, however, remain on paper, with little or no implementation.
Sparc launched its campaign against child marriages simultaneously in nine districts of Sindh, which include Jacobabad, Shikarpur, Sukkur, Khairpur, Naushehro Feroz, Nawabshah, Larkana, Kambar-Shahdadkot and Dadu, where the custom is most prevalent. Child rights committees have initiated a dialogue in all these districts and are organising seminars, walks and press briefings to spread awareness.
Abro said that a private bill on child marriages has been submitted in parliament but “as usual, progress has been painfully slow”.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 21st, 2010.