The issue of child marriage continues to haunt Pakistan, with any progress having been extremely slow. Each step forward seems to be followed by two steps back. The Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) made its controversial views known last year against the proposal to increase the age of marriage to 18 years of age. The outcry from human rights activists was justified in a country where the UN estimates 21 percent of girls are married before the age of 18. Three percent of them are married off before the age of 15. This is not only an issue of their autonomy, but also one of child welfare and health. Moreover, the ability of these girls to be caregivers in the households chosen for them remains severely compromised. The fear of suffering domestic abuse at such a young age is also greater. Religion is brought into the issue unnecessarily and, while this narrow interpretation might be expected from the CII, it was worse to see a Senate panel reject the amendment to the Child Marriage Restraint Bill 2017 last week. This week, thankfully, the same bill has been approved after much public outcry. Even then the decision was three-to-two, with the ruling PML-N voting against the amendment.
Having chosen to backtrack after passing a law against domestic abuse last year, the PML-N seems like it is trying to appease its perceived religious constituency. The CII representative embarrassed himself before the standing committee when asked to state his source when claiming that a girl reaches maturity at the age of nine. The committee chair noted that the Organization of Islamic Countries has already passed a resolution to increase the age of marriage to 18, which seems to suggest that Pakistan would be acting as a special case that disagrees with the entire Muslim community. Regressive cultural norms should not be defended under the guise of religion. It is logical that if a girl cannot vote or buy property at the age of 16, she cannot be considered mature enough for marriage. The state’s role should be to ensure that girls are provided education, health and a safe environment. That is Pakistan’s role as signatory to the Child Rights Convention. The bill has only passed the first hurdle. One would hope that this time the legislature stands up for what is right, instead of bowing to extra-parliamentary pressure.