In many countries around the world, the legal minimum age for marriage is 18. These laws help prevent early marriage, more commonly known as child marriage, which is defined as any marriage where one – or both – parties are married before the age of 18.
Child marriage is harmful for those married early, for their families and ultimately for their communities. When girls are married early, they are not physically, psychologically and physiologically ready to shoulder the responsibilities of marriage and child bearing. A girl’s childhood, which should be filled with opportunities to learn and grow, is cut short when marriage and responsibilities are imposed upon them before they are ready.
And while the harmful consequences of child marriage are well documented, not every country has passed laws that set the legal age of marriage to 18.
In South Asia, this problem is particularly acute. In many South Asian countries, early and child marriage are deeply rooted in culture, norms and traditions, especially in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. In these countries, child marriage persists for several reasons: girls are perceived as a financial burden, or are often married to settle a family’s debt, also known as Vani. In these instances, girls are forcibly married as part of the punishment for crime committed by their male relatives. And while there are many additional reasons girls are married early, one common theme where child marriage is prevalent is that girls are simply not valued the way that boys are.
Child marriage also often persists where laws are not clear and where there is not enough political will to ensure that a law setting the legal age of marriage to 18 is implemented correctly.
For example in India, the law defines child marriage as a marriage where either a woman is below the age of 18 or the man is below the age of 21. In this case, the law is clear, but we know from previous research that child marriage is common throughout India.
My home country, Pakistan, provides another example, highlighting how poor legislative processes and a clear lack of understanding of the issue affect rates of child marriage. In Pakistan, a child marriage bill, which proposed to raise the minimum age of marriage for girls from age 16 to 18, was recently withdrawn from parliament by a lawmaker after it was deemed “blasphemous” and “un-Islamic.” The bill proposed imposing severe punishment on those who break the law in certain regions and areas that are under what’s called “federal administration,” areas that do not fall under any provincial territories and are governed by the state. These areas include Islamabad Capital Territory and Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).
The Child Marriage Restraint Act, which passed in (1929) prohibits marriage before 16 for girls and sets 18 as the minimum age at marriage for boys. However, in Pakistan, child marriage remains a serious problem and is prevalent in both the rural and urban areas. According to our friends at Girls Not Brides, 21 percent of girls in Pakistan are married before the age of 18.
Because of an amendment that cedes more control to provinces over initiatives like health, education and social services, setting the legal age of marriage for boys and girls now falls under provincial legislation. This means that according to the new amendment, the issue of child marriage is now under the purview of provincial authorities and the federal government is only responsible for the areas under its control.
Currently, there are only two provinces in Pakistan that define child marriage as unlawful and punishable by law. The Sindh province was the first to pass legislation against child marriage in 2014, which forbids marriage before the age of 18 and makes early marriage a punishable offense. The Punjab province also passed a similar law, which states that marriage before 16 for girls and 18 for boys is a punishable offense. The other two big provinces, home to hundreds of thousands of boys and girls, Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhawa have not passed laws to prevent child marriage.
In Balochistan the assembly is working on a bill that could prevent child marriage, but the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), who will likely try to scale back laws that are designed to protect girls, are working on the contents of the bill, a clear cause for concern.
The Council is responsible for giving advice to the government and the parliament, but their recommendations are non-binding, which means that the government is not obligated to take into consideration the Council’s advice. The Council does not agree with current laws that prohibit marriage before the age of 16, claiming the laws are a violation of Islamic law. The Council endorses marriage for girls as young as 9, provided they have reached puberty.
The definition of child-marriage in different provinces of Pakistan is inconsistent and laws are not in accordance with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Children, designed to protect the rights of every child, which Pakistan signed onto in 1990.
In Pakistan, and all around the world, every child should have the right to a childhood and one that is free from forced and early marriage, which is currently all too common throughout the country. Decisions about boys’ and girls’ rights should be informed by evidence, not ideology. And the evidence shows that delaying marriage is better for the health of children and the strength communities and of entire economies. All children in Pakistan, whether they live in federally administered areas or in provinces big or small, deserve the same protections under law.
Note: This blog is previously published by ICRW, it can be found here: http://blog.icrw.org/in-pakistan-every-child-should-have-a-right-to-their-childhood/