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Why are 39.5% of women married before the age of 18 in Pakistan?

Why are 39.5% of women married before the age of 18 in Pakistan?

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39.5% of Pakistani women are married before the age of 18, according to the Pakistan Demographic and Health survey (DHS) survey of 2017.

The scourge of child marriage is still prevalent in Pakistan. The recent Arzoo Raja case, where a 13 year old Christian girl was forced to convert and marry a 44 year old man is proof that this phenomenon is still alive and kicking in Pakistan. 39.5% of Pakistani women are married before the age of 18, according to the Pakistan Demographic and Health survey (DHS) survey of 2017. The survey interviewed women in their early twenties and concluded that almost 40% of them had been married while they were still minors. Within Punjab 29.9% of women were married before the age of 18 and 43.1% in Sindh. Despite certain protections within the law and Pakistan’s ratification of international conventions against child marriage a significant portion of Pakistani women are forced to become child brides. 

What factors are drivers of child marriage?

  • Weak enforcement of laws: The Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929 sets the minimum marriageable age at 16 for girls and 18 for boys. Despite this law child marriages continue to happen because there is little enforcement by those responsible for making sure it’s upheld. This includes the police, judiciary and the Nikkah officiants. The police oftentimes do not register cases against those marrying child brides, especially in the cases of forced religious conversions and marriages. This is because under the popular interpretation of Sharia Law, by the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) and many others, a girl can be married off after she reaches puberty so culprits often furnish affidavits stating that the girl converted willingly and is eligible to marry. The Nikkah officiants also have no training to check the age of the girl and get her consent before marriage. And, owing to cultural norms male officiants cannot even make a visual estimation of the girl before marriage. The judiciary too is complicit in this as it frequently sanctions the marriage of minors by opting give rulings under their interpretation of Sharia Law, for example, in February 2022 the Sindh High Court stated that the marriage of 14 year old Huma Younis with an adult man was valid, as she had already had her first menstrual cycle.
  • Cultural norms and traditions: In many parts of Pakistan, especially the rural areas, traditional practices involve child marriage. Watta Satta (simultaneous giving and taking of brides between two households), Vani (child brides given in order to pay of debts or as punishment for a family) and Pait Likhi (betrothal of girls before birth or in infancy) are all traditions which frequently occur in Pakistan. Child brides have customarily been used as a tool to settle disputes or barter by male members of their communities.
  • Religious precedents: Under the prevalent interpretation of Sharia Law in Pakistan and personal interpretations of Sunnah many people believe that the early marriage of their daughters is incumbent upon them. This is ostensibly in an effort to keep the youth from indulging in religiously premarital sex, and give them a legitimate avenue to satisfy the normal human sexual desire that occurs post puberty. However it should be noted, these marriages are not commonly between minors (which is still illegal) but between minor girls and adult men. 
  • Gender norms: The patriarchy has firmly imbued notions of honour within the chastity of a woman, hence the early marriage of girls is preferred in order to avoid any stain on the family’s honour. The general thought process is that women left unmarried too long might indulge in licentious behaviour or be preyed upon by others in society leading to the ruination of their families’ reputations. In addition to that, most people subscribe to traditional gender roles in Pakistan where they believe that a woman’s natural role is to be a homemaker and mother so they must fulfil that as early as possible. 
  • Insufficient prohibition in the legislature: Pakistan’s main instrument against child marriage is the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929. But, that act is in need of updating as it sets the age of marriage at 16 for girls instead of 18. Out of all the provinces, only the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act of 2013 sets the minimum marriageable age at 18 for both genders. The Child Marriage Restraint Act needs to amended because it is the main determinant of the age of marriage, even the special marriage acts for minorities refer to this act in order to determine the minimum age for marriage.
  • Lack of education: This is simultaneously a consequence and cause of child marriage. Girls are frequently forced to drop out of school, as their education is not considered a good investment by many. In contrast to their brothers, they are seen as a drain on finances so they are forced to become child brides. Ironically, pulling girls out of school is what limits their ability to earn for their families because they lack the requisite skills. 

What are the negative effects of child marriage?

  • The World Health Organisation (WHO) reports that pregnancy complications are the number one reason for deaths of girls aged 15-19 in low and middle income countries, like Pakistan.
  • Babies born to adolescent mothers are at a very high risk of dying before their first birthday. If the mother of a baby is less than 18 years old then the chance of that baby dying in the first year of its life is 60%. Each year 1 million babies born to adolescent mothers die within the first year.
  • It continues the cycle of poverty for many families. Child brides normally do not complete their education thus they are unable to earn for their families. This stagnates the possible income attainment for a family.
  • Child marriages lead to increasing illiteracy as many women are unable to complete their schooling. They themselves remain illiterate and cannot teach their children either.
  • The International Council of Research on Women (ICRW) has reported that women with low levels of education and girls married between the ages of 15-19 are at a higher risk of domestic violence and forced sexual encounters.

What can be done to address the problem of child marriage?

  • The Child Marriage Restraint Act can be updated to set the minimum age for marriage at 18 for both genders.
  • Increasing access to education for girls, through support programs such as providing a stipend to families for sending their daughters to school.
  • Providing employment opportunities for women, so there is an incentive to educate and or train them instead of marrying them off as soon as possible.
  • Implementation of sex education and family planning programs across the nation in order to highlight the dangers of early marriage.
  • Criminalising not just those marrying children but also those involved in aiding and abetting child marriages.
  • Penalising those involved in regressive traditions like Watta Satta and Vani, etc.
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