To End Child Marriages, Eradicate Systematic Illiteracy and Poverty

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To End Child Marriages, Eradicate Systematic Illiteracy and Poverty

Shajeel Zaidi argues that the criticism from right wingers over efforts to end child marriage is absurd and baseless. Only an end to systematic illiteracy and poverty will solve this panacea of child marriages. In the meantime, we should not use Islam as a bastion to defend child marriages.

Apart from illiteracy, a dismal healthcare system, systematic corruption, an exponentially increasing population, Pakistan’s greatest challenge is dealing with an extremist interpretation of political Islam, espoused by a tiny yet powerful Islamist lobby. Considering child marriages wrong is something which ought to be inherent to any rational person’s sense of right and wrong. However, in this ‘Islamic Republic’ of ours, it is a matter up for debate.

It should be a matter of shame for Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) that while the bill against child marriage was initially moved by its own MNA, Dr. Ramesh Kumar Vankwani, its right leaning MNAs started protesting the very bill. It’s very easy and convenient to bring up Quran and Sunnah in support of arguments against declaring a legal age for marriage, but as Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) Senator Sherry Rehman pointed out in the Senate, almost all other modern Muslim countries such as Oman, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates have already set 18 as the minimum age of entering marriage.

When Ulema and right leaning pundits argue against child marriage, they’re making comparisons with a society which existed 1,400 years ago. Most Islamic conventions are not rulings and laws specifically mentioned in the Quran, rather conventional mores of the time in which Islam came into existence. The Holy Quran never explicitly mentions the age at which a girl can be considered for marriage. While marriage is considered meethaqan ghaleezan, the most solemn form of covenant according to Islam, it also enshrines free and considered consent between the two spouses and alludes to both physical and mental maturity required to not only consummate marriage but conduct one’s own affairs.

18 is not a magic age where a child all of a sudden attains mental and emotional maturity, but modern society has deemed 18 to be a an age where an individual can take independent and wise decisions, be able to serve in the army, drive, vote in an election, and in Pakistan – be considered eligible for a CNIC. How galling is the fact that while a 17-year-old girl is not considered mature enough to be registered as an independent adult by NADRA, a 14-year old girl is somehow declared suitable for marriage.

I am not blaming Islam per se for child marriages and forced marriages, rather people in far flung rural areas of Pakistan and the katchi-abadis in cities have a culture which accepts and legitimizes child and forced marriages and a warped interpretation of Islam is used as an enabler of these kinds of acts. When the matter then comes up for debate in our glorified halls or democracy, our elected officials mention Islam to either brush the matter aside or refer it to the Council of Islamic Ideology where, as Senator Raza Rabbani quipped, it is akin to sending something to cold storage.

It goes without saying that child marriages serve as an emotional trauma to the brides, whether it be the 10-year-old girl married to a 40-year-old man in Shikarpur or a 13-year-old girl to a 70-year-old-man in Naushahro Feroze. Regions like these consider marriage a quid pro quo. A girl from one family is exchanged for another. Then when the girl enters the vast joint family system, she is beaten to a pulp and ordered to take care of all the mundane household duties while also taking care of the sexual needs of the man who in most cases is old enough to be her father. Most cases of marital rape also involve child brides. Forget the mental trauma that the girl in question endures, during pregnancy, the girls either falls weak a la rheumatism or dies. Pakistan is notorious for having the highest number of deaths due to pregnancy. One Pakistani woman dies every 20 mins due to childbirth.

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Moreover, as mentioned in the recent reports coming from Shikarpur, the father in most cases agrees to wed his minor girl in exchange for a significant sum of money. For example, in the 2014 case in Naushahro Feroze, the girl’s father admitted that he agreed to his daughter’s marriage against a sum of Rs. 100,000 because he needed the money to construct a room in his small house. If this is not an example of minor girls seen as assets to be sold by their respective families, I don’t know what is.

Sindh is one of the only provinces which has seriously tried to fight against this epidemic of child marriages. The provincial assembly passed the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act in 2013, which basically did three things: empowered the police to arrest those involved, made child marriage a non-compoundable offence barring the families involved from striking an out of court settlement, and increased the minimum age of marriage of girls from 16 to 18.

The SCMRA 2013 is a slightly improved version of the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929, which India still uses, and Pakistan follows in theory too. The Act declared a boy’s marriageable age to be 18 and a girl’s marriageable age to be 16. The only real difference between the 1929 act and the current parliament bill is the difference in the marriageable age of the girl – 16 in the 1929 Act and 18 in the current bill. Thus, there is not an immense difference.

We already have a law against child marriage. The problem is that this law is scarcely implemented,  and even the police at times is complicit in protecting the families which engage in this dastardly practice of child marriage, because of which it is estimated that almost one-third of girls in Pakistan marry before they approach 18 years of age.

Even if the current bill in motion passes as an act of parliament, it will not really change things on the ground, because child marriages are a result of extreme poverty and dire illiteracy.

All third world countries suffer from child marriages. Only an end to systematic illiteracy and poverty will solve this panacea of child marriages. In the meantime, we should not use Islam as a bastion to defend child marriages.

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Shajeel Zaidi

The author works in alternative financing on Wall Street, and has a fascination with modern history and politics.

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