IT is not often enough that we see a move in parliament to counter the ultra-conservative lobby, something that is particularly true of events in recent months when the right-wing has been in full cry. However, the Child Marriage Restraint (Amendment) Bill introduced in the National Assembly on Tuesday attempts to do exactly that by pushing back against the Council of Islamic Ideology’s recent declaration that laws barring child marriage in Pakistan are un-Islamic. The bill seeks to amend the British-era Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929, by making underage marriage — below 16 for girls and 18 for boys according to the law — a cognisable offence and empowering family courts to take notice of the law’s violation. Those contracting marriages with children or solemnising such unions will both be held liable. The bill also stipulates punishment of up to two years’ rigorous imprisonment or a fine of up to Rs100,000, or both, thereby enhancing it from the present one-month simple imprisonment or a fine of Rs1,000.
Although the CII functions in an ‘advisory’ capacity, the reactionary environment in Pakistan at present offers fertile ground for the body’s appallingly regressive recommendations to influence public debate in a direction that would leave women and children far worse off than they already are. There is no better forum to check this than the country’s primary representative body, and the introduction of the bill in the National Assembly by five PML-N parliamentarians is a timely and much-needed assertion of its legislative role that it must employ for the protection of the most vulnerable segments of society. However, the timorousness of legislators in the face of right-wing onslaught was once again evident with the religious affairs minister suggesting that, if needed, the CII’s input should be considered while the bill is deliberated upon, which would surely consign the proposed legislation to oblivion. Instead, this is as good a time as any to definitively sideline the CII and reinforce the supremacy of parliament.
Another silver lining in this unexpected dredging up of an issue that should have long been settled, is the opportunity it affords to craft effective legislation to check a crime that can have devastating consequences for a child’s mental and physical health. For instance, it is well-known that maternal mortality in Pakistan, which already fares poorly in the region on this score, is highest among girls below 16, whose bodies are not mature enough for the rigours of child-bearing. The existing law against child marriage is a toothless one that is often flouted with impunity in the name of ‘culture’. An amendment in the law is thus a very welcome move, and legislators must stand firm against resistance from those attempting to advance medieval traditions that have no place in modern society.