End Pakistan’s legal allowance for marrying girls off at 16 


End Pakistan’s legal allowance for marrying girls off at 16 

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Under Pakistani civil law all citizens attaining the age of 18 become adult citizens and eligible to get a computerized national identity card (CNIC), which in turn is necessary to register marriage, cast a vote, own property, buy a car, get a driver’s license and operate a bank account, among other rights and privileges. And yet, the legal minimum age for the marriage of girls is 16 under federal law and under the laws of three out of four Pakistani provinces.

It is only in southern Sindh province that the minimum legal age for marriage is 18 for girls. This discrepancy among genders – between being considered a child and legal adulthood – relegates no less than 80 million girls under 18 (outside Sindh) to such vulnerabilities as underage marriage, forced conversion of religion (especially from non-Muslim faiths to Islam) and often a lifetime of sub-optimal rights.

It is not uncommon to come across daily news stories of girls abducted and converted forcibly from minority faiths to the majoritarian religion, or girls betrothed under duress even before 16 years of age when they are not even considered mature enough to vote or complete their basic education. Even Sindh’s law declaring adulthood at 18 for girls – same as boys – is no protection against forcible marriages for those below 16. 

Declaring legal adulthood for young men at 18 but most girls at 16 (without giving them a CNIC) is blatant discrimination based on gender. Not only does this militate against constitutional guarantees against discrimination on the basis of sex, religion and other political indicators, this is a serious social problem that has devastating consequences for millions of girls. For one they are legally deprived of at least two legal childhood years that are crucial in learning to translate their rights into choices about their lives. 

Girls are legally deprived of at least two legal childhood years that are crucial in learning to translate their rights into choices about their lives. 

Adnan Rehmat

It is astounding that registration of marriage requires a citizen to have a mandatory CNIC that can only be issued when one becomes 18 years of age and yet hundreds of thousands of girls in Pakistan every year are married off below 18 years of age – many even below 16 years. Lost childhood years make for muddled early adulthood and other losses such as being deprived of education. 

Article 25A of the Pakistani constitution makes it mandatory for the government to provide free educational facilities to all children from 6 to 16 years – primary to high school. And yet Pakistan has the world’s second highest number of school-age children out of schools – a staggering 23 million, about two-thirds of which are girls. For even those who make it to school, two-thirds of the dropouts by high school – matriculation – are again girls. They are twice as likely not to go to college compared to boys.

This casual gender discrimination translates into institutionalized disempowerment of women. Pakistan was ranked 145 out of 146 countries in the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Score for 2022. In key part due to institutionalized and legal gender discrimination, the Human Development Report for 2022 ranked Pakistan 161 out of 191 countries. The gender gap refers to differences between men and women in terms of social, political and economic participation and rights.

The UN International Labor Organization’s 2022 Gender Wage Gap report ranks Pakistan at the absolute bottom of 73 countries for paying 34 percent less to women for average hourly wages compared to men. This intersectional gender discrimination – between the genders and within the female gender – is why Pakistan is a development basket case and one of the world’s worst places to be a woman – or a girl.

All this must change. All roads to economic development and social progress lead through legal and political gender parity and enforcement of gender rights. All contradictory laws and regulations must be removed to make equal rights for girls and women mandatory in Pakistan. Gender equality is an inalienable right that cannot be undermined by social and cultural practices, or religious indoctrination. 

Sustainable social, economic and political development is not possible anymore without empowerment of women anywhere. Pakistan is no exception. Empowerment of Pakistan will not begin without making 18 years the uniform age of adulthood for all citizens, girls included. A normal childhood guaranteeing universal education and social parity will make adulthood come with the promises of self-development and social progress.

Once a new parliament is in place after the national elections scheduled for February 2024, one of the first constitutional amendments to be made should be to legalize parity between the sexes and make 18 years the minimum threshold for adulthood for all citizens. Let no forced or premature adulthood be imposed on girls if Pakistan is to be a mature society that does right by all its citizens. 

– Adnan Rehmat is a Pakistan-based journalist, researcher and analyst with interests in politics, media, development and science.

Twitter: @adnanrehmat1

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