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More Dangerous Than Terrorism: Child Marriages in Pakistan

More than 20 percent of girls in Pakistan are forced to marry before the age of 18, a problem that “is more dangerous than terrorism and is related to the future” of the country.

Nasreen was 12 years old when she was married to a man 16 years older than her.

“At the start of our marriage he was fine with me, but then he started beating me and committing physical violence,” Nasreen, now 20, says. “He even tried to burn me. He never trusted me and always showed his doubts about my character.”

When Nasreen was pregnant for the third time – at the age of 18 – her husband sent her back to her parent’s home along with divorce documents.

“He had relationships with several girls since the start of our marriage,” Nasreen said. “He sent me back home because he was going to take another wife.”

Nasreen, who grew up in a rural area in Punjab, Pakistan, is among the 21 percent of girls in the country that are married before the age of 18, according to UNICEF.

Nasreen sitting in a room with her three children
Nasreen and her children

Anbreen Ajaib, executive director of Bedari, an NGO that works for the protection and promotion of human rights of children, women, and other marginalized groups in Pakistan, said this data may be a little old now.

“There might be some variation in the data now. However, our experience shows that prevalence is still very high,” she told The Globe Post.

Bedari is now providing Nasreen with counseling services and has helped her join a group where she is learning “sewing and other skills to financially empower” herself.

Most child marriages in Pakistan are connected with deep-rooted traditions, culture, and customary practices.

These “sometimes involve the transfer of money, settlement of debts or exchange of daughters sanctioned by a Jirga or Panchayat (council of elders from the community),” according to Girls Not Brides, a global partnership of 900 civil society organizations committed to ending child marriage.

Participants of a seminar on child marriages, which was held in Pakistan in April, urged the government to tackle the problem on a priority basis as “it is more dangerous than terrorism and is related to the future of Pakistan.”

In 1929, the British raised the legal age to 14 for girls in colonial-era Pakistan (then India), and imposed a 1,000 rupee (around $9) fine for violators. The minimum age was then raised to 16 for girls in 1961and lowered for men from 21 to 18. But, according to Bedari, even that is seldom enforced in rural Pakistan.

“The system of birth registration is not very effectively followed, and hence the age of most of the girls (especially in the rural areas) is only measured by their looks and growth,” Ajaib said. “ There is no system of verifying the age through any documentation. It is all done verbally in most of the areas in Pakistan.”

Activists have since been fighting to institute checks on child marriage through amendments to child marriage laws. A minor victory was made when the penal code was updated in February 2017 to criminalize forced marriages of underage brides with fines of up to one million rupees (roughly $9,500) and a maximum of ten years in prison for violators.

However, these penalties only apply when a marriage is classified as “forced” and when the bride is younger than 16. For this reason, activists have pushed for an update to the Child Marriage Restraint Act itself, to widen the scope of the law.

“Previously, through this campaign, we were demanding senators to vote for 18 as the minimum age of marriage for girls in Pakistan,” Tayyaba Qurban, program manager for Group Development Pakistan, a nonprofit organization that works on advocacy and lobbying federal laws for children, said.

Group Development Pakistan has been working on a campaign, #raisetheage, to increase awareness about child marriages in Pakistan and create pressure on authorities to raise the minimum legal age for girls from 16 to 18.

“The overall objective of this campaign is advocacy and lobbying against child marriages in Pakistan as it is a human rights violation,” Qurban told The Globe Post. “Civil society organizations are working for the child protection and rights continuously and leading this campaign to raise the age for marriage for girls at least to 18.”

Pakistani civilians cannot get a CNIC, a national identification document, before they turn 18.

Najma Afzal Khan, a Punjab assembly member from the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), stated that infant mortality amongst girls who married before 20-years-of-age was 116 per 1,000 births. This, however, falls drastically to 75 per 1,000 births in women who get married in their twenties.

“If you can’t drive or vote before the age of 18, why should you be allowed to get married?” said Afzal Khan, one of the main supporters of the bill. “Also, why is the minimum age for marriage for boys 18 but for girls it is 16? Pakistan’s constitution was built on equality and one rule for all.”

In October 2017, the senate standing committee rejected the federal Child Marriage Restraint (Amendment) Bill, 2017, that proposed to increase the minimum marriageable age for girls from 16 to 18 years for girls, as “un-Islamic.”

“There are different challenges faced to the proposed amendments in the bills which includes different interpretations of the Islamic shariah law where they consider this bill and its proposed amendment as unIslamic,” Qurban explained. “Some Islamic shariah interpretation links the age of marriage to the puberty which can be as low as the age of eight in some children nowadays.”

Ajaib said there were several Islamic Fatwa’s and logic to support the argument of raising the age of marriage to 18 that can be used to convince the religious leaders to work around changing the religious interpretation about child marriage.

“There are 11 other Muslim countries who have minimum marriageable age of girls to be 18 or above,” she added.

Groups like Bedari and Group Development Pakistan are working on providing scientific and religious evidence against child marriages to push for legislative reforms to raise the minimum age of marriage to 18.

“Strong laws and policies are essential as a deterrent, and also send a message from the government that it is serious about the issue,” Girls Not Brides has said. “It is also important that Pakistan raise its age of marriage to comply with international law.”

However, because child marriage is so deep-rooted in customary practices, legislative reform may not be enough on its own.

“It is crucial to work on attitudinal change in the society to understand the harms child marriage brings to the life of girls, family, and community,” Ajaib said.

She believes that the government needs to focus more resources on enhancing education for girls and providing more employment facilities.

“A girl is married off assuming her to be burden on the family,” she said. “If this burden is transformed to an opportunity and asset through the above-mentioned approaches, it is most likely to combat the child marriage.”

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