Child marriages continue unabated

According to UNICEF, 21 percent of girls in Pakistan are married before age of 18, while three percent before the age of 15

The menace of child marriage doesn’t seem to end in Pakistan, as another case of alleged forced marriage and conversion of minority Christian  girl surfaced in Karachi. The repeated incidents have shown that the issue is deep rooted in the country.

People using religion as a shield have repeatedly engaged in it. This is despite the fact that in April 2019, Pakistan Senate passed a Child Marriage Act, fixing the minimum age of marriage at 18.

Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) leader Sherry Rehman, who presented the bill, met with harsh and heated comments by other senators. The Jamiat Ullema Islam-Fazlur Rehman (JUI-F) leader said: “The law is about the Sharia rules, hence, should be sent to Council of Islamic Ideology (CII).” 

Meanwhile, State Minister for Parliamentary Affairs Ali Muhammad Khan said, although the bill is noble but, “the Constitution binds us to make legislation in consonant with Islamic laws.” Some other senators from PPP and PTI did praise the law.

So under the state law underage marriage is against the law, and it can lead to imprisonment up to three years or fine of Rs100,000 or both. However, the same bill was rejected by the National Assembly of Pakistan.

The bill got 50 votes in support, while 72 members opposed it. Even the members of the ruling party including Minister of Religious Affairs Dr Noor ul Haq Qadri and Minister of Parliamenty Affairs Muhammad Ali Khan opposed the bill. Meanwhile, Minister for Human Rights Shireen Mazari and most of the women parliamentarians supported the bill.

The recent case of Arzoo has reignited the debate in the country.

According to media reports, the 13-year old girl was allegedly abducted, converted and married to a 43-year old Muslim man. The family of the minor girl took the case to the court, where, in its first verdict, the court allowed Arzoo to go with her ‘husband’ as she told the court that she is 18.

However, after a severe criticism on social media and protests across the country, the court revisited its verdict. The court ordered a medical examination of the girl, which declared that girl is 14-15 years old, hence a minor. After the report, the court ordered to send the girl to a women’s shelter home.

Although this case has might have seen a positive end, but the forced conversion and underage marriage has remained a serious issue in Pakistan. According to UNICEF, 21 percent of girls in Pakistan are married before age of 18, while three percent before the age of 15. The menace of underage marriage is mostly in most marginalized and underdeveloped parts of the country.

According to state law, before Child Marriage Bill passed by Senate in 2019, the legal marriage age for girls was 16 and for boys 18. This shows the discrimination even in the law.

It is pertinent to mention here that while giving a verdict in such cases, the courts mostly relies on Sharia law, which according to them allows these marriages. It would not be wrong in stating that the country and its society are lost in translation between the state law and religion. The confusion has been used by parts of society in their favor. 

The gravity of this situation can be measured by a recent statement by a famous religious cleric, Mufti Tariq Masood from Karachi. During a sermon, he urged his followers to marry four women, three with widows or divorced and fourth with a virgin, and he will arrange a virgin girl for the fourth wedding. His exact words were: “Mufti Tariq Masood will find you a 16-year-old or two eight-year-olds or four four-year-old.” After saying this Mufti and his followers burst into laughter.

Sceptics feel that the issue will prevail in Pakistan, because on one hand the lawmakers are not ready to change the law, while the religious clerics take underage marriage as a joke. While the whole society is lost and confused, most don’t know what to follow and what not to. 

Rights activists urge the society as a whole start to think about the matter, engage in a positive debate over the issue that underage marriage is not a joke, can cause serious health issues to the girls and lead to lifelong mental trauma. It needs to be understood that girls have a right to choose; their partner and time of their marriage.

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