Karachi: The Social Welfare Department (SWD) was on Sunday directed by provincial chief secretary Muhammad Siddique Memon to speed up efforts for implementation of the Sindh Child Marriages Restraint Act.
Presiding over a meeting, Memon gave the directives to secretary SWD and also asked all departments of the Sindh government to coordinate with the SWD in order to devise an implementation plan.
“The bill would specifically protect girls and also ensure a healthy childhood for all children.”
Aimed at increasing the legal age of marriage from 16 years to 18, the bill was passed by the Sindh Assembly on April 28, 2014.
It was presented by culture minister Sharmila Farooqui in 2013 and parliamentarian Rubina Saadat Qaimkhani.
Part of an eight-member committee, tasked with drafting the bill, both the parliamentarians consulted with all the stakeholders, including fellow female lawmakers, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), religious scholars as well as civil society members.
As per the bill those who performed or conducted the act or in any way directed, brought about or facilitated a child marriage would serve a three-year prison term as well as be liable to pay a Rs45,000 fine.
The only bill to have been passed by any provincial assembly of the country, the Sindh government earned itself immense appreciation nationally. However, the implementation of the legislation was termed a challenge since cases of child marriages in the province were still being reported.
Furthermore, as according to a feature published in this newspaper earlier this year, the “political pragmatism” of the stakeholders involved in the passage of the provincial child marriage restraint law left a major lacuna in the legislation.
Recognising the marriage of anyone below 18 years of age a non-bailable offence and penalising with at least a three-year jail time as well as hefty fines, the bill does not declare the marriage itself void.
At the time it was drafted, the stakeholders feared a severe backlash from the religious community. They were worried that if such marriages were declared null and void, it would result in thousands of cases of divorce or Khula and open up a Pandora’s Box of controversy.
However, it resulted in a serious loophole in the legislation. Though the law criminalises underage marriage, it does not question its validity.
Even if the retrospective effect was pragmatically ignored, failing to make future marriages of people younger than 18 is something which eventually makes the implementation of the law that much harder for the government itself.
Maliha Lari, a lawyer, said that under religious law, puberty marked the eligibility for a girl’s marriage. She commented that religious values often ended up superseding the law in court in practice when the Nikahnama was in reality a social contract between two consenting adults.
“If you can’t get a driving license and an identity card before 18 years, how can one agree to a lifetime contract?” she said.