The introduction of Child Marriage Restraint (Amendment) Bill, 2018 in the National Assembly of Pakistan earlier this month has once again stirred controversy regarding the sensitive topic in almost all echelons of Pakistani society. The Senate of Pakistan had earlier unanimously passed a resolution to set minimum marriageable age to 18 years for girls. The bill sailed through the Senate despite stringent opposition from religious bloc as well as some elements of the ruling party. The idea of child marriage restraint is no stranger to antagonistic forces acting against it. It extends from the Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929 that had been enacted by Imperial Legislative Council in British India. The most pertinent question, however is that does setting a minimum marriage age even qualify as UN-Islamic in light of Islam itself?
Child Marriage is a custom ingrained within the echelons of Pakistani Society and geographically concentrated in Sindh alongside the peripheral areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.Mostly girls and sometimes boys forced to contract marriages in their childhood is part of culture and tradition. Swara, WattaSatta and Wani are some of the customs employed to settle political and personal scores by enslaving minor girls and sometimes boys through forced marriage.The statistics on child marriage are as per UNICEF data are as follows:
• 99 percent girls and boys contract marriage in childhood in tribal areas
• 72 percent girls become child brides in Sindh
• 25 percent boys get married in childhood
Girls, particularly, are representation of ‘izzat’ (honor) for a family and thereby a highly valued trading commodity for the people who indulge in such practices. The direct victims of this deplorable practice are not only the women and girls.
World Health Organization estimates that 21 percent of girls become child brides. As per their estimates, between 2011 and 2020, 140 million underage girls will be forced to surrender their freedom to take on duties they are not mentally or physically prepared for. The result is a high maternal mortality rate. According to the WHO, every 20 minutes, a girl dies due to underage pregnancy. Suffering does not end on the mother. It extends to the child borne out of her fragile being.The existing Government aims to empower women by granting them entrepreneurship loans so women may perform their due economic roles. When a significant portion of 49 percent of the population is embroiled in controversies of child marriages, illiteracy and poor health; utilizing them as part of active workforce becomes hard to counter challenge.
From a religious perspective, the debate about minimum age of marriage being UN-Islamic holds little ground. Adulthood is a subjective concept in Islam as it is synonymous with Balooghat. Once children reach puberty, the obligatory religious acts like fasting and praying are proscribed onto them. Islamic history verifies that the Holy Prophet (SAWS) contracted marriage with Hazrat Ayesha (RA) at an early age, but references indicate that ‘rukhsati’ was performed when she was over 18 years of age. According to Imam Abu Hanifa, marriage is a contract. In order to validate a contract and thereby solemnize it, both parties are required to be fully eligible and equipped with legal sense to know what they are entering into. Such may not be expected of children- girls and boys who have barely passed grade school.
Perhaps, the issue is not about legislation or religion, but awareness. The Council of Islamic Ideology of Pakistan refrained from assuming a clear stance on the proposed Child Marriage Amendment Bill, 2018. However, the arguments assumed by their leaders seem to clear the dust. The late Grand Mufti of Pakistan, Maulana Mufti Muhammad Shafi issued call discouraging the practice of child marriage. The CII published a 12-page report in this regard detailing the arguments of different Islamic Scholars in favor of and against child marriages. The details about the minimum marriage age in 12 Muslim countries were also taken into account with the conclusion that such practices are not compatible with the modern world today and hence should be discouraged. The CII further recommended the Government to initiate awareness campaigns to educate people about the demerits and complications of child marriage in association with Islamic scholars. It urged Government to take concrete measures to eliminate the reasons because of which families marry off their children at a young age .
The dilemma of minimum marriage age is a needless one. Neither religion nor rationality restricts setting such benchmarks. Only the vested interests in state and society oppose it. Instead of focusing of such needless debates, there is an urgent need to confront the issue head-on. Illiteracy, culture, tradition and poverty are the major reasons families choose to engage into child marriages. The following recommendations are proposed:
- The Government may work to eradicate poverty and improve access to education through safety nets and poverty eradication programs. Improving access of women to education and capital is pertinent to empower them and uplift them from their deplorable socio-economic conditions thereby helping them to resist pressure against unfair cultural traditions like child marriage.
- Engaging with Islamic scholars and creating community wide awareness campaigns to educate the public regarding deleterious impacts of child marriages may prove to be an efficient tool to reduce the occurrence of this tradition.
- Legislation acts as an effective deterrent in any society and it is therefore indispensible that a minimum marriage age for girls be legally set.
With constitutional safeguards in place and awareness and social security programs in full force, Pakistan may be able to curb the issue of child marriages and its associated consequences.