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Counting the cost of child marriages

Although child marriage is prohibited by law, the practice is widely prevalent in Pakistan — sixth highest in the world. Girls, of course, are affected excessively. According to a United Nations Children’s Fund report, 21 percent of Pakistani girls are married by the age of 18, and three percent before their 15th birthday. The practice is most common among the poor, though the comparatively advantaged sections of society are not immune to it, either. Negative consequences of girl-child marriages in terms of mental and physical health as well as on the right to education and work — vital for empowerment of the half of the population — are most talked about. But barely ever mentioned is the impact of such marriages on economic development.

This aspect of the issue is highlighted by a joint study carried out in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa by the UN Women and the National Commission on the Statues of Women. It reveals that over 360,000 female students in Punjab and 136,000 in KP were deprived of education in a year (from July 2019 to July 2020) due to early marriage with a potential (personal) income loss of over Rs 18.2 billion, and potential loss worth a billion to the GDP. The situation in the other two provinces is similar, if not worse. For an obvious reason, the focus of this study is on girl-child marriages. But no less important are the implications of underage boys. Like in the case of girls it is rampant among the poor and underprivileged sections of society, mainly because of lack of opportunities to improve their condition with easy access to educational opportunities. They become fathers at an early age — adding to the countries out of control population — taking on the responsibility of providing for their young families. Entering the workforce with little or no education, they live and die destitute, perpetuating intergenerational poverty. Which in turn has unfavorable outcomes for the developmental effort as more and more uneducated and untrained manpower keeps joining the workforce.

Success of the child marriage prohibition law will become meaningful only if and when the policymakers give education the priority it deserves. The Constitution stipulates free and compulsory education for all children between the ages of 5 to 16 years. Successive governments have promised to fulfil that constitutional requirement, also called for by the UN Millennium Development Goals, but failed to back words with action. The result is that Pakistan has the lowest literacy rate in the whole of South Asia, making it that much harder to achieve the ambition of sustainable socioeconomic progress and prosperity.

Source: Business Recorder (Editorial)