LAHORE: Sixteen civil society organisations formally launched the Alliance against Child Marriages (AACM) Punjab on Tuesday to try and bring up the average age of marriage for girls, which is as low as 13 in some rural areas.
Almost half of Pakistani women are married by the age of 19 and half have delivered their first child by the age of 21, according to various studies conducted by women’s rights group Shirkat Gah, its communications director Fauzia Waqar said at the launch.
Waqar said that child marriages were a violation of basic human rights and the law. She said: “Our Constitution terms marriage as a legal contract between two adults. How can there be a marriage when an individual doesn’t even qualify to be an adult?”
The average age of marriage and first delivery, as well as the mortality rate, are much worse in rural areas, said Waqar. Early marriages often resulted in serious health risks for the girl. “These girls are not physically strong enough or mature enough to undergo a physical relationship and bear a child,” she said.
One study calculated that the average age of marriage for girls in Matiari and Jacobabad was 13. “These are children deprived of their right to a childhood,” she said.
Democratic Commission for Human Development Executive Director Tanveer Jehan said there was complete legal confusion regarding what age defined a child. According to the Convention on the Rights of the Child a child is an individual under the age of 18.
Jehan said while Pakistan had ratified the convention in 1990, there was no law protecting a child under the age of 18 from marriage. Article 25-A of the Constitution gave a child up to the age of 16 the right to an education, but children aged 16-18 were left out, she said.
Social Welfare Department Director General Malik Mohammad Aslam said that clerics who preside over nikah ceremonies had a responsibility to ensure that the bride and the groom were adults who knew what they were getting into. “How can a child decide on a matter so serious as marriage when he or she hasn’t even reached the age of maturity?” he asked.
Aslam said it the department had a mandate to provide social protection services to marginalised and vulnerable segments of society and these included children. He said that a technical working group was being set up to provide specific assistance in this regard.
Neelam Hussain, founding member of Simorgh Women’s Resource and Publications, said society at large was not bothered about underage marriage and Pakistanis generally lacked community spirit. “No matter how grave an issue, we as a society just can’t be bothered to take any steps unless we are directly affected by the issue,” she said.
Hussain said that child marriages were unacceptable. They deprived a child of the right to live and enjoy his or her formative years. “What is the difference between the rape of a seven-year-old and the marriage of a seven-year-old? The latter involves marital rape,” she said.
Hussain said that in her research she had found that individuals involved in child marriages were often involved in extra-marital affairs. “There is a growing incidence of such affairs because these people …. subjected to rape, violence and child bearing have become devoid of any emotional attachment with their partners,” she said.
Minister for Population Welfare Zakia Shahnawaz said child marriages could be brought to an end through education, particularly in rural areas. “Once educated, these children are more knowledgeable and aware of their rights,” she said.