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Child Marriages are a Menace to the Girl Child


On March 7, 2015, the Punjab Assembly passed the Punjab Child Marriage Restraint (Amendment) Act 2015. This Act amended the Child Marriage Restraint Act 1929 (No XIX).
The 1929 Act was presented in the Indian Legislative Assembly by Quaid-e-Azam. It accordingly has a historical significance for the people of Pakistan. The Quaid had a special interest in the passage of the law as he himself married a girl Ruttie who was much younger than him and in fact he had to wait for a couple of years till she could attain the age of majority in order to be legally eligible to get married. He had an unhappy marriage which eventually led to divorce and he thus knew the negativities associated with child marriage.
The Act was passed in 1929. The age of marriage for males was fixed at 18 and at 14 for females; the Muslim Family Laws Ordinance 1961 (No VIII) raised this age from 14 to 16 for the females.

Article 25(2) of the Constitution says that there should be no discrimination on the basis of sex alone. The fact that the age of girls under the 1929 Act is fixed at 16 as opposed to 18 years is discriminatory on the basis of sex of the person concerned and should not be sustained in a court of law. Unfortunately, the discrimination has been continuing since 1929.

The Punjab Assembly had a chance to rectify this discriminatory provision at the time of amending the 1929 Act; it failed to do so. It was sad as few members were present at the time of the passage of the law and lack of quorum was repeatedly pointed out. However, the provincial government tried to take advantage of the lack of members in the Assembly and managed to get 11 laws passed in a record time.
Children constitute fifty percent of Pakistan’s population. In most of the countries, women form fifty percent of the population; this is not the case in Pakistan where they form only 47 percent of the total populace. The reason is simple: they are neglected by their parents, husbands and families and if it comes to a girl child, then she would be on the lowest tier as she is a girl and to top it, a child.
Thousands of seminars have been held to raise awareness about the plight of girl child in the country. The law-makers attending them always point out what the government is doing for the girls’ welfare and what it plans to do in the future. But the situation is getting from bad to worse.

Pakistan has one of the highest rates of child marriages in the world. It is now an established fact that child marriages lead to poverty. It is disastrous not only for the well being of the wedded girls but also for the country. Young brides are exposed to physical and sexual abuse, endure high-risk pregnancies and are denied access to school or job training.
We will be celebrating 68th year of our independence this year but we have not been able to get all our children registered at birth and control the menace of Child Marriages. This is ironic as this is one of the easier things to do. The 1929 Act has been on the statute books for decades but our law-makers could not muster the courage to modify it progressively and the courts remained impotent to implement it. There are few cases reported under this Act in the whole of Pakistan’s history.

In 2014, the Sindh enacted a new law on the subject of child marriages. The provincial government should be commended for the effort but it is patterned almost on the same lines as the 1929 Act. Fact of matter is that perhaps a new law was not even needed if proper amendments could have been carried out in the existing law. A year has passed since the introduction of the Sindh law and not a single case has been prosecuted under it. Who is to be blamed for this?

One of the reasons for such few cases under the 1929 Act and the Sindh law is the cumbersome procedure proposed for filing of cases. Perhaps more people would come forward if they are given a right to file cases if a contravention of the law comes to their attention. At the moment, it has to be done by the union council. The latter have been non-existent in most of Pakistan’s history and even when they are present following elections, they seldom bother to prosecute the criminals perhaps due to the fact that the union council members would know the criminals and would not like to alienate them for political reasons.

Both the 1929 Act and the new Sindh law lack provisions dealing with rehabilitation and recovery mechanisms for those girls who have already been married at a young age; they are in millions in the country.
Child marriages are disastrous for the health of child brides. They start becoming pregnant at a young age which affects their health and normal growth. Not surprisingly, they seldom give birth to healthy infants as they themselves are not healthy. Furthermore, giving birth at such a young age leads to severe delivery related complications which affect the health of the girl child for years to come.
Other than the girl child, the consequences of such marriages are no less for the family and for the whole country in the long run. Most of the child marriages take place in poor families. Health complications add to the financial burden of these families and make it even more difficult for them to come out of the vicious cycle of acute poverty. The solution is so simple but we have made it so complicated.

The writer is a practicing lawyer at Supreme Court of Pakistan

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