Rising Menace of Child Marriage: Causes and Consequences
Child marriage is a global issue and according to “Girls Not Brides”, 12 million girls are married before 18: that is 23 girls every minute, and nearly 1 every second.
In Pakistan, child marriage is a menace on the rise and the issue comes to light every now and then, after which society conveniently forgets about it yet again. This week, some news regarding the matter made it to the headlines when an MPA from Sindh submitted a bill seeking to make marriage compulsory for people over 18 years of age. The private bill, called the Sindh Compulsory Marriage Act, was strongly opposed by many, including activists and NGOs working for human rights as well as the sister of chairman PPP, Bakhtawar Bhutto Zardari, who said that the said bill would be ‘bulldozed’ by the party.
With a fine of Rs. 500 for violating the law, it became a laughing stock for many. But in reality, child marriage is no less than a tragedy and an abuse of basic human rights for the thousands of girls and boys who are forced or coerced to marry early, in spite of the legal framework.
South Asia has the highest rate of child marriages in the world. Pakistan itself has the 6th highest global number of girls married before the age of 18.
In 2017, a UNICEF report stated that 21% of Pakistani girls were married by the age of 18, and 3% before 15 years of age. Nearly 40% of the population of 20-year-old girls in Pakistan at the time were married before they turned 18.
Addressing child marriage in Pakistan is challenging, primarily because of the entrenched dimensions of tradition and religion. Even though the “Child Marriage Restraint Act” makes it an offence to marry a girl below the age of 16 and a boy below the age of 18, this law is applicable only by name; and is only in force in ICT, KPK, Balochistan, GB and AJK areas. In Sindh, the minimum age of marriage is 18 years for both sexes, whilst Punjab has its own laws.
Similarly, in 2019, a bill introduced by Senator Sherry Rehman was passed in the Senate to increase the minimum age of marriage for females to 18 years. The “Child Marriage Restraint (Amendment) Bill 2018” was passed with overwhelming majority. However, most of the laws proposed by both bills have been of no use and remain toothless as the government has to date been unable to enact the law due to several reasons.
A major cause is religious opposition, as some Pakistani religious political parties like Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F) and Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) opposed these bills when they were tabled, resulting in its disapproval by a wide segment of the conservative masses too. Another important cause is the fact that, in many rural areas and underprivileged homes, children lack birth certificates and this lack of documentation means that there is no proof of underage marriages. Similarly, there are other hurdles in enactment as well as enforcement of such laws, including deeply entrenched traditions and customs, poverty, lack of awareness and/or access to education, and lack of security, all of which become the core factors resulting in the continually rising number of child marriages.
While both boys and girls can be married off early, there are far more girls than boys who become victims of this practice.
This largely stems from the gender inequality ingrained within our society. In Pakistan, when a girl is born, she is considered a ‘guest’ in her own home and a burden on family; hence most parents wish to marry off their daughters as soon as possible. And because the patriarchy is deeply rooted in Pakistani society, it is mostly the fathers and grandfathers who typically arrange marriages for their female kin. Mothers can influence the decision and propose suitable husbands, but it is the patriarch that makes the final call. The decision is often considered crucial for the family, hence described difficult for a girl to make on her own; sometimes, the decision is made as soon as the daughter is born.
According to a survey in Punjab, only 4.8% of girls reported that they feel in control of who, when and if they marry. It is considered shameful for girls to talk about getting married: ‘good’ girls are told to leave their most important life decision to their elders. Hence, most decisions are forced and many marriages are ‘arranged’ without the free consent of those getting married.
Many activists and NGOs state that poverty plays a major role in many cases. Some of these so-called marriages are essentially the ‘selling off’ of young, underprivileged girls. In many tribal areas, especially in northern Pakistan, it is widely reported that wealthy men often pay Rs. 2 to 5 million to families of young girls in order to marry them. The median age of marriage is the lowest in rural areas and in Gilgit-Baltistan. In addition to this is the tradition of ‘exchange marriages’ (watta satta) and unions that strengthen family dynamics – such as consolidating family wealth and landholdings – which often result in underage girls being married to men often twice or thrice their age. Many of these early marriages take also place under archaic customs of penalties across Pakistan’s rural areas: it is known as dand or bada in Sindh, vani in Punjab, and swara in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the tribal areas. In this practice, an accused family gives its girl or girls, mostly young, in marriage to an aggrieved family to settle a blood feud between the two parties.
The low literacy rate is another major contributor to child marriages in Pakistan. One of the major concerns of the people living in this plight is the marriage of their children, mainly because underprivileged families seldom send their children to schools. Hence, the boys in those families start working from a very young age, while girls are trained for household work and married off quickly, meaning more underage marriages.
Child marriage has devastating consequences all over the world.
Such marriages are a significant health risk for women and girls, resulting in early pregnancies, dangerous complications during pregnancy, higher rates of infant mortality and difficult childbirth, as well as risk of infections and STDs like HIV. Domestic violence, especially unreported instances of spousal abuse, also increase exponentially due to underage marriages where children are unaware of their rights and their lives are mostly controlled by adults.
Even when they are able to access education, most girls are forced to drop out of school due to marriage. As a result, they are barred from accessing education, limiting their potential economic opportunities and, most importantly, depriving their children in turn from educational opportunities that enable a healthy and prosperous life. Therefore, child marriages generate a never ending cycle of poverty.
Many young girls miss out on developing the skills, knowledge and confidence they need to make informed decisions, negotiate, access paid employment, and live independent lives; they are forced live in the shadow of their husbands, resulting in abuse and imbalanced marital relationships.
Early marriage negatively affects boys as well as girls. Young men often struggle to secure a stable income leading, to household poverty, stress and domestic violence. It often has a long-term impact on the mental health of not only the young couple but of their offspring as well: causing generational trauma, imbalanced relationships and weak family dynamics.
We as a society must also change our mindset on what the role of young women is and should be in our society.
To stop child marriage, there must be a multi-dimensional approach that targets all children, not only those at risk. Strict policies and programs to educate communities regarding the problems associated with child marriages are required. Awareness should be raised by engaging local and religious leaders, involving parents, and empowering girls through education and employment. Young women deserve the right of self-determination: to be able to choose what they want in their lives and when they want it; to be treated as human beings and a resource of society, not a burden on their families or simply a bearer of honor.