Folksongs won’t protect the child bride; but the law can
Marriage — the famed new beginning that women are taught to desire since childhood amid traditional folksongs that shower blessings on the blushing bride, the glow of lights, the secret weaving of love and dreams. But the fact is, the cultural narratives surrounding marriage in Pakistan go beyond the pomp of a wedding. They are now leading directly to the death of children, and of their childhood. The fact is that 1,909,000 — almost two million — women in Pakistan have been married off as children. It cost them their right to education, to adolescence, and to their health. Thousands have lost their lives due to early pregnancies and many of those who survive live with serious health defects in what are often asymmetric marital relationships.
According to UNICEF, 21 percent of girls in Pakistan are married before they are 18 years old. There are no folksongs sung about their lives or suffering. There is no law that prohibits the practice. In Pakistan, the lawful age of marriage for a woman is 16 years, and 18 years for a man.
The plight of these child-brides was recently brought before Pakistan’s parliament, to shockingly mixed and divided reactions. Senator Sherry Rehman introduced the Amendment Act in the Senate, which proposed three primary changes to the law: an increase in the minimum age of marriage for women to 18 years; significantly higher penalties on persons who marry off a child and those who arrange and solemnize the marriage; and the granting of greater powers to the police to make arrests in cases of child marriage.
The Amendment Act passed through the Senate amid vociferous opposition from religious quarters, who objected to the ‘un-Islamic’ nature of the changes proposed. The National Assembly was even less welcoming to the proposed law and revealed strong divisions within the ranks of the ruling PTI, where calls for human rights and women’s rights were pitted against religion.
The proposed law has now been referred to a parliamentary committee, which will consult the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), an advisory body comprising Islamic scholars which renders non-binding opinions on the compatibility of laws with Islam.
This is not the first time religion has been used to legitimate child marriage. It was used in 2016 to thwart a similar proposed amendment in the National Assembly to increase the minimum age of marriage for women. It was the CII’s view then, that under Islamic law a Muslim woman may be lawfully married upon attaining puberty.
Any argument in favor of under-age marriage must confront and rationalize statistics of infant and maternal deaths due to early pregnancies, sickly and stunted children born to under-age mothers, the increased (and uncontrolled) fertility of under-age brides and the consequent impact on population growth.
Sahar Zareen Bandial
Will the Amendment Act meet the same fate this time? It depends on the political will of the ruling government to confront and engage with religious and other opposition parties. In 2014, the Pakistan People’s Party government in Sindh, despite the adverse opinion of the CII, did muster the will to pass a marriage restraint act which increased the minimum age of marriage for women in Sindh to 18 years.
It is important to mention, that this time around the CII has not taken an unequivocal position on the issue. So far it has not outrightly condemned the Amendment Act as un-Islamic, and neither has it endorsed the legislative prescription of a minimum age for marriage. Instead, it has suggested that the government engage in awareness campaigns against the “wrongful” practice of child marriages.
Whatever its opinion may be, the National Assembly must deliberate on the proposed amendment rationally. Any argument in favor of under-age marriage must confront and rationalize statistics of infant and maternal deaths due to early pregnancies, sickly and stunted children born to under-age mothers, the increased (and uncontrolled) fertility of under-age brides and the consequent impact on population growth. According to the World Bank, ending child marriages could lead to a $6 billion rise in earnings and productivity in Pakistan.
Other Muslim countries such as Egypt, Bangladesh, Tunisia, Morocco, UAE and Turkey have set the minimum age for marriage for women at 18. Pakistan’s law views free consent as central to the Islamic institution of marriage, but it is debatable whether a 16 year-old girl possesses the intellectual or emotional maturity to provide informed and independent consent to her marriage. Her consent should not be treated as actual consent, particularly when the age of the majority in Pakistan for other legal purposes such as voting or holding property is set for both women and men as 18 years.
The legislature must ask its members whether we as a nation, whether we as parents, are willing to afflict such suffering on our girls and the children they bear. The legislature must question whether it is equally obligated under the law to protect the interests and rights of young girls, as it is bound to ensure compliance with a particular opinion on Islamic law.