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Save Girls From Becoming Child Brides

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Child marriage violates a girl child’s basic human rights of getting a decent, protected and happy childhood, the right to their own bodies, (translating into marital rape and numerous life threatening), the right to education and the right to live a life of freedom, integrity and choice.

In short, child bride is a fancy word for physical, mental, emotional, financial and sexual abuse. The reason why it is not termed abuse is because this special kind of abuse employs two very vital tropes to make it justified and acceptable in traditional Muslim cultures. These 2 tropes are: – Nikah (which is forced, purchased and manipulated) and forced conversions. Young, under aged girls are abducted, forced to convert to Islam and then forced to sign a Nikah Naama. Post Nikah they are also forced to not meet their families as they are not Muslims. And if they dare to revert to their original religion, they are seen to be committing an unforgivable sin and this act endangers their lives by Muslim extremists or “so called” prime owners and protectors of the religion. This is the overall big picture.

First and foremost, I would like to explain the legal and contractual stipulations attached to the Nikah-Naama. A Nikah Nama is a legal contract between two ‘mature’ consenting adults. It’s a contractual agreement that entails clauses listed with consent and understanding of the two parties entering the contract. Now as the age of the girl is always a burning issue, according to the Islamic Laws, more than the age it’s the maturity level of the partners which is of critical significance.

In Sindh, the legal minimum age to get married is 18, whereas in Punjab it is 16. Personally, I think the legal age of marriage should be raised to 21, because by this age most likely, a girl would have completed her college education and reached a decent level of maturity to understand the dynamic of a marriage.

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What does maturity mean? It means that the parties entering into this legal contract fully understand the dynamics and demands of the marriage. And most importantly, the body of a girl is physically and mentally matured to have intimate relations with her husband. Furthermore, her body is physically strong enough to carry a pregnancy to full term. Now we should define maturity levels with respect to a minimum age requirement. Any child under the age of 18 is deemed a minor. A minor by definition does not hold the maturity level to enter into any legal contract.

In the US, no minor can enter into any law abiding contract without parental consent. In Pakistan, unfortunately, we need to develop laws to increase the minimum age to 21 that would define an individual as an adult. Thus, at age 21, an adult has full rights over his/her life, to live it the way he or she wants to. At this age, yes, the consent to any legal contract becomes valid, case in point being the “NikahNaama” and his/her choice to convert to any religion if they deem it fit based on their research and natural inclination towards the new religion.  Pakistan’s constitution supports the rights of minorities and laws must be strengthened to protect their rights.

So coming back to forced conversions and child brides: Firstly, no one has the right to abduct a child. Whoever commits this crime must be arrested and a trial must start against the alleged abductor. Secondly, as the child is a minor even if she says the Kalima Tayyaba under pressure, it doesn’t hold any true significance in conversion. As she’s a minor, her conversion is invalid. Subsequently, the nikah naama that she is forced to sign is invalid too. The consequential forced sex upon the child or more precisely defined as a rape is NOT termed as intimate relations between a married couple either.

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If not abductions, no legal guardian of the child, neither a parent nor any relative has any right to forcibly change the religion of the child or sell her off (as a child bride) in exchange for money.

Sometimes, due to abject poverty, the girls are sold off in these marriage trades. A child is a human being, not some money market instrument that can be traded to extract liquid cash. This kind of cruelty must be severely punished and the government must develop infrastructural reforms (like giving them to a secure foster care) to safeguard these children that are sold off by their own parents.

Using a girl child for sexual crimes and using religion as the mighty shield to make it all noble and acceptable by the society at large is the best way to satisfy sadistic sexual needs for these middle aged lustful men.

And a week ago, we read in the news that a bill against forced conversions is submitted to the Senate that proposes 10 years of imprisonment and a fine of Rs.100,000 in case of forcing someone to change their religion for marriage.  This is a good step put forth towards protecting minorities’ rights and their freedom of space and choice to live their lives with integrity. I sincerely request the Senate to please approve this bill with a fleeting majority and implement it as a functional law which is correctly monitored to avoid gaps and inaccuracies.

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