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Demand for law to raise marriage age for girls to 18

KARACHI: “If a girl can move around a charpoy, she is old and strong enough for marriage” is an oft-heard sentence in the rural areas of Sindh, justifying early marriages, said a participant in a consultative meeting on early marriages organized by the Adolescent Girls Empowerment.

Following the sessions with the social sector and religious scholars, the third meeting was held with media persons to carry forward the message of doing away with early marriages.

Speaking at the event, Sindh women development minister Tauqeer Fatima Bhutto said Pakistan was a conservative country, where women were often kept on the margins. Despite societal attitudes, there was a need to review the existing laws and create new ones to provide justice to women. Given the sensitive nature of the issue, the minister cautioned the audience that her words must not be taken out of context.

“We all use religion for our personal gains. Whereas it is said that four marriages are allowed, men claim it to be their right, but they don’t heed the insistence on ‘equality’. The same is the case with marriage where ‘aaqil-o-baligh’ is a criterion for an individual to get married,” she said, adding that young girls were hardly in a position to make decisions when it came to a lifelong contract, nikah.

“It’s not just an issue of age. We have to give our girls their rights to health and wellbeing and in this regard, raising the age limit is a must.”

RutgersWPF programme manager Kanwal Qayyum said young girls led the maternal mortality rate in Pakistan, adding: “The Child Restraint Marriage Act 1929 needs to be amended where a girl of 16 years is eligible for marriage. The age must be increased to 18 years so that the girls are physically and mentally mature enough to deal with pregnancies.”

Talking to Dawn, Abdul Rahim Moosavi, project coordinator of HANDS, said: “We hope to create awareness at the community level regarding the harmful practice of early marriages. The project aims to minimise opposition and mobilise support through advocacy.”

Most importantly, he said, it aimed at becoming a catalyst for the passage of a child marriage bill on increasing the minimum age of marriage for girls from 16 to 18.

“In our earlier consultation, the ulema were quite forthcoming. They said if they were involved in the process, doubts could be removed and we all must work as partners. They even suggested that nikah could be performed early, but rukhsati could be delayed till the girl is 18,” said Mr Moosavi.

Though the discussion remained focused on how the age limit could be changed given the religious edicts on the issue, the participants observed that change in rural society was much needed in order to end the practice of child marriage.

Though the minister and the implementing partners insisted that the media could help do away with child marriages if it did its job well, many participants said such a bill would face a lot of resistance.

“Changing the mindset in a feudal society is very difficult. However, this issue needs to be taken out of the boardrooms and into the community. Most importantly, for this Islamic scholars must be taken on board as they are the ones who have greater reach and if possible a fatwa against early marriages be issued by a competent authority,” a journalist from an Urdu daily said. In their recommendations, the government and civil society partners suggested the government must develop and implement systems to prevent child marriages as well as set 18 years as the legal age of consent. It further recommended that attitudes towards child marriages must be changed and stressed the need for community awareness programmes and discussion of human rights perspective in the media. It said life skill-based education must be imparted to youngsters in school to enable them to think rationally.