Pakistan

No more child brides! Bravo Sindh Assembly

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Contributors: Bushra Khaliq

The provincial assembly of Sindh has took the daring lead on 28th April 2014, that deserves appreciation for becoming Pakistan's first elected assembly to have passed a bill restraining child marriages under 18 years. The passage of the bill has come on the heels of controversy that was triggered after the council of Islamic Ideology (CII) had ruled that prohibition of underage marriage was un-Islamic.

The new law would go a long way to help reducing the menace of child marriages. After the 18th Constitutional Amendment, the issue of child marriage is considered to be a provincial subject and Sindh Assembly has done rightful act and a much-needed piece of legislation by putting ban on the unbridled practice of child marriage in the province.

However, the other three provinces are yet to address this issue. With the prevalence of approximately 30 percent of girls in the country married off as child brides, the situation is even worst in the interior of Sindh province with prevalence rate of 37 % child marriages opposed to 21% for urban areas. Therefore, new law is a welcome step and may prove a spoke to the vicious cycle and ugly practice of girl brides. The credit goes to particularly Sharmila Farooqi and Rubina Qaim khani and all human, women rights activists, who have been highlighting the harmful practice of girl child marriage in the country, particularly in poor, rural communities of Pakistan.

Under the new legislation(Sindh Child Marriages Restraint Bill, 2013), "any groom who solemnizes marriage with a girl less than 18 years of age, parents of such a groom or those facilitating contracting of such a marriage will be given maximum three years rigorous punishment but not less than two years". The offence is cognizable, non-bailable, and non-compoundable. Anyone can file a complaint against such a marriage in a court of judicial magistrate and the court will ensure the case is decided within 90 days. Pertinent to mention is that previous law "The Child Marriage Restraint Act 1929" sets the minimum age of marriage for girls as 16 years and does not allow police to intervene directly in underage marriage implying that Sharia law is to be consulted.

The new legislation is also a befitting reply to Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) that declared the ban on child marriage against religious principles. The CII chairman Maulana Mohammad Khan Sheerani, said in recent statement "The girls can get married at an early age. Once a girl is mature (attains the age of puberty), she can enter into marriage and allowed to take husband. The laws limiting the age of marriage are un-Islamic", he declared.

The human, women rights activists had widely condemned the anti-women outbursts of Council of Islamic Ideology, and demanded forthwith abolition of this so-called constitutional body. Totally blind to the repercussions of this unbridled menace, members of the CII and religious clergies are oblivious to the health risks associated with early sexual activity and childbearing. These so-called scholars never ready to think about the miseries of the child brides, who are more likely to be victims of domestic violence, sexual abuse and social isolation. Often uneducated and unskilled, these young girls are completely dependent on their husbands and in-laws to survive, rendering them further vulnerable to different shades of exploitation.

The multiple reasons of child marriages are deeply rooted in poverty, gender discrimination, conflicting laws, religious norms and in centuries-old patriarchal traditions, with devastating effects on girls' life. These ugly tradition include sawara, wani, sang chati, paitlikkhi, wattasatta, vulvaljai or khasaniyesoogo unchecked in many parts of Pakistan, particularly in the rural Sindh, Balochistan, Punjab, and the country's northwestern tribal areas. These black traditions hard hit the women through whom young girls are exchanged to settle family/tribal/clan disputes and feuds.

As a result every year thousands of girls-preteens and teens- become the wives of older men. Young girls are married when they are still children and as a result are denied fundamental human rights. Early marriage compromises their development and often results in early pregnancy and social isolation, with little education reinforcing the gendered nature of poverty. Required to perform heavy amounts of domestic work, under pressure to demonstrate fertility, married girls and child mothers face constrained decision-making and reduced life choices. Both boys and girls are affected by child marriage but the issue impacts girls in far larger numbers, with more intensity—and is wide ranging.

Early marriage is a socially established practice that has been carried on from generation to generation. Governments are often either unable to enforce existing laws, or rectify discrepancies between national laws and customary and religious laws. Most often, child marriage is considered as a family matter and governed by religion and culture, which ensure its continuity. It remains therefore a widely ignored violation of the rights of girls and women.

The real challenge, therefore, for government of the Sindh is now to implement the law in letter and spirit. It would have to make under age marriage a valid basis for divorce and provide statutory relief to victims of swara, vani and other similar practices. Ensure the registration of all births and marriages as per provisions of NADRA, Ordinance 2000 through simplified procedures. Implement the ban on verdicts of jirgas and panchayats and identify support mechanisms within existing structures to ensure that law of unified age 18 is implemented, after it is passed.

About the writer: Bushra Khaliq is executive director of Women in Struggle empowerment (WISE) and can be reached at; bushra.khaliq1@gmail.com

Asian Human Rights Commission
About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation monitoring and lobbying human rights issues in Asia. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984