On Sunday the police, acting on a tip-off by a child rights activist, stopped a marriage ceremony between a 6 year old girl and a 22 year old main in Dubai Chowk, near Thokar Niaz Baig, Lahore. The girl, Sumaira, was married to a man thrice her age because her family could not pay off a debt to the father of the groom – the groom being a labourer in a nearby housing society. The episode is a stereotypical example of motivations that prompt families to marry off their young daughters, and should act as a blueprint for the state’s crackdown on this unjust practice.
The state has come a long way; both the Sindh Assembly and the Punjab Assembly have recently passed legislation which significantly increases the punishments for the people “involved in the act” and has defined these people to include the parents, guardians, and the cleric officiating the ceremony. They have set the minimum age of marriage for girls at 18 and 16 respectively and require the groom and bride to produce ID cards before the marriage can be officiated. Issues with the implementation of this law aside, this is a positive step; one that needs to be adopted at the federal stage, and implemented throughout the country. The other provinces still follow the 1929 act, which lets the offenders off with a proverbial slap on the wrist.
Punitive measures will only do part of the job. The extreme poverty and traditional practices that fuel such acts need to be tackled too. It is a astonishing that the family that was marrying off their daughter to repay a debt were still forced to pay a dowry – the police recovered jewellery and other valuables from the event. Perhaps if the state delinked marriage from a monetary contract, by banning dowry, as some have suggested, the practice of using girls as trade goods would subside. A much easier and direct method is to muzzle people like Maulana Sherani, Chairmain of the Council of Islamic Ideology, and let saner voices prevail – who use their religious influence to end injustice, not concentrate power in hands of patriarchy at the expense of women.