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‘Efforts against child marriages must go beyond legislation’

ISLAMABAD: In a statement issued on Sunday, Potohar Organisation for Development Advocacy (PODA) called for an end to child marriages.

Sameena Nazir, the executive director of PODA, said forced and child marriages are very common in rural areas of Pakistan and are a major impediment to girls’ access to education and health.

“According to law, underage marriages are a crime but there is not enough awareness regarding this issue,” she said.

Welcoming the recent steps taking by the governments of Punjab and Sindh for the criminalisation of early and forced marriages, Ms Nazir said that the legal steps only address part of the problem.

“A mechanism for the implementation of the law has to be made,” she said.

Ms Nazir told Dawn that the Punjab government, through legislation in March 2015, criminalised the marriage of a girl younger than 16.

“However, a large number of Nikah Khawan (marriage registrars) have been registering marriages without inquiring about the girl’s age. The police and parents also do not have awareness regarding this law,” she said.

She called for efforts to raise awareness about such marriages and said that the media should also inform people that marrying girls below 16 is a crime.

In response to a query, she said that although the police have registered some cases against parents and Nikah Khawans, there is no authentic data available on child marriages and the legal action taken against perpetrators.

“The law on child marriages is available on the website of the Punjab Commission on Status of Women but steps should be taken at the governmental level for its implementation,” she said.

According to a report of the Population Council, girls married before the age of 18 are more likely to experience domestic violence, compared to peers who marry late. Child brides often show signs symptomatic of child sexual abuse and post traumatic stress. Such symptoms include feelings of hopelessness, helplessness and severe depression.

Child brides are at a heightened risk of sexual and physical abuse, reproductive health complications, HIV/Aids and other adverse physiological and social outcomes. Girls aged between the ages of 10 and 14 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than those aged between 15 and19.

In Pakistan, there are around five known traditions or customs which promote child marriages. These include Watta-Satta, when a boy is married to a girl from another family and his sister is married to his wife’s brother.

Paitlikkhi, which literary means written on stomach, is a custom in tribal and rural areas of the country under which two families agree to marry their children before they are born or are still very young.
Swara or Vanni is culturally sanctioned practice where girls are given in marriage as a form of dispute resolution. Vulvar is the system of bride price in Balochistan. Addo-Baddo is practiced in Sindh, it is a custom in which families agree to marry their daughters to boys of other tribes when they are children.

Additionally, young girls are married when a family faces financial difficulties, so that there would be fewer mouths to feed. Girls are also married young out of fear that they may engage in premarital sexual relations and bring dishonour the family.