On January 30th, the Senate Standing Committee on Human Rights approved a draft bill proposing to raise the minimum age for marriage in the country to 18 years. Minister for Human Rights, Dr. Shireen Mazari has promised to present the approved bill in the parliament for debate on urgent basis. If passed by the Senate and the National Assembly, the Child Marriage Restraint (Amendment) Bill, 2018 will outlaw marriages before the age of 18. Although it will be applicable in the Federal territories, mainly Islamabad Capital Territory, yet it will set a standard for the provinces; and serve as an important framework reference for human rights obligations.
This bill had earlier been presented in the Senate by a PPP lawmaker Sherry Rehman, and was forwarded to the human rights committee by Senate Chairperson for the further debate.
Currently, Pakistan’s federal law is based around an Act passed in 1929 where the age limit was 14 years and above. It was increased to 16 by the Muslim Family Laws Ordinance, 1961. The current law sets the legal marriage age at 16 for girls and 18 for boys, setting different, and thereby discriminatory, marriage ages for girls and boys.
After 2010, the prevention of child marriages became a provincial subject. Sindh is the only province so far to have passed a law, barring marriage under the age of 18. In Sindh, the law makes under-age marriages a cognizable and non-compoundable offence. This means that the police can take action on their own to arrest offenders upon any information, and no private justice deals can be made between families, communities or jirgas to bypass the law.
The Punjab Marriage Restraint (Amendment) Act 2015 still allows girls to be married at 16. It allows the police to register a case to stop child marriages, but they are not empowered to arrest the offenders. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan continue to be governed by the 1929 Act, like the federal law, which is necessary to be changed.
Pakistan figures second on the list of countries with the highest child marriage rates. According to UNICEF, 21 percent of Pakistani girls are married by the age of 18, and 3 percent before 15. Child marriage tends to occur in the country’s most marginalized and vulnerable communities and has devastating consequences: Girls who marry are more likely to drop out of school than other girls. If we look at our Gender Parity Index: across Pakistan, only 87% girls are enrolled in primary school for every 100 boys (this number falls to as low as 56% for the erstwhile FATA).
The early married girls tend to bear more children, which is a big hindrance in population control drive. They face greater pregnancy-related health risks than women, and their babies are more likely to have health problems. It is obvious that the high rates of maternal and infant death in Pakistan have a close link to early marriage. Married girls are more likely to face domestic violence than woman who marry later. Additionally, child marriage increases the poverty when it limits the possibilities for girls. Obviously, child marriage is a grave threat to the lives and prospects of young girls. It violates their rights, denies them their childhood, disrupt their education, jeopardizes their health, and limits their opportunities.
In Pakistan, there are various causes of early or child marriages. The most amongst those causes are: extremely weak legislation; lack of implementation of the existing laws; children are treated as commodities/slaves; tribal and feudal structure of society; lack of awareness in the public about harmful effects of child marriages; extreme poverty; internal trafficking; and lack of will in the government.
Another important cause of the child marriage is ineffective and non-responsive birth registration system. The birth registration for children, especially of girls is never a priority, which gives room for manipulation of the age of the girls at the time of marriage. In addition, there are no central, independent and strong child rights bodies that could monitor child rights violations including the issue of child marriages.
Pakistan has ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990 which describes the age of child as under 18 years. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in its Concluding Observations and Recommendations about Pakistan’s 5th Periodic Report in 2016 notes that there is difference between the minimum legal age for marriage of boys (18 years) and that of girls (16 years). Therefore, the Committee has recommended Pakistan for the “full harmonization of its legislation as regards the definition of a child so as to define a child as every human being below the age of 18 years”. It recommends in particular to amend the Child Marriages Restraint Act (1929) in order to align the age of marriage of boys and girls by raising the minimum age of marriage for girls to 18 years.
In outcome report of Pakistan’s third Universal Periodic Review (UPR), adopted on 19th March, 2018 in Geneva, countries like Iceland, Australia, Denmark, Namibia, Belgium, Austria and Bahrain asked Pakistan to enact and enforce legislation to combat child marriage.
The Pakistani government has a number of key rights challenges, yet it should also focus on the rights of girls. Under the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), countries around the world, including Pakistan, pledged to end marriages before age 18 by 2030.
To save children from early marriages, the legislation in the entire country must enforce a restraint, be it federal or provincial territories and off course, finally it must be the local governments which can ensure that legal safeguards are implemented in letter and spirit. Pakistan must not use religion or custom to send this law for consultation to any committee outside the parliament. At the moment, all parties look in favor of new legislation for prohibiting child marriages so the efforts must not be interrupted.
Marriage is a lifetime contract and a child who does not even understand what a contract is cannot be expected to choose her life partner. A child cannot hold her Computerized National Identity Card (CNIC) or driving license, cannot vote so how can she sign the contract of the marriage. For the stronger implementation, the provision of a CNIC should be made mandatory for registration of marriages.