On the face of it, the issue of marrying off children is not one that should be a contentious one. Children, since they are unable to take care of themselves, earn a living or deal with the myriad of demands of adult life, are not felt to be capable of entering into legally binding contracts. However sound this reasoning might appear, it is not still capable of swaying the religious bodies of this country into accepting the right of a person to be allowed to choose their life partner after attaining an age when they are equipped with enough knowledge and experience to make such an important decision.
Previous attempts by legislators to safeguard child rights in this regard have been blocked on religious grounds. In 2014, the Council for Islamic Ideology opposed a bill that would have raised the age of marriage to 18 years. Another bill, seeking to amend a law that is nearly a century old is now facing a similar fate after having been referred to the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Religious Affairs on March 24. The bill proposes to raise the penalty for an adult male marrying a child from a one-month imprisonment and a Rs1,000 fine to a one-year imprisonment and a Rs300,000 fine. It is being feared that this bill may meet the same fate as its predecessors because of opposition from the religious right wing.
There is one fine detail, which is ignored while drawing up legislation regarding child marriage. It is assumed that guardians, when making decisions on behalf of their child, have that child’s best interests at heart. Ground realities present a starkly different picture. In many parts of Pakistan, child marriages are used as a means of settling debts or making peace with the enemy. Using examples from our religious traditions to defend horrific realities is allowing the guardians of little girls to use them as chattel and deny them their basic human rights of personhood and independent will as set by Islamic jurisprudence as well as our Constitution. One can only hope that those responsible for formulating laws will pay as much attention to today’s realities as they do to historic precedent when considering this latest bill that seeks to curb child marriage.