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Enforcement of child marriage restriction law yet to begin

By: Saher Baloch

KARACHI: Although the bill was unanimously passed by the Sindh Assembly last year, not a single case has been registered at the police stations across the city under the Sindh Child Marriages Restraint Act, 2013 despite NGO claims of hundreds of such cases having happened during the period, it emerged on Wednesday.

Soon after the passage of the act by the provincial legislature, a case was brought to the notice of the Clifton police station. But on further inquiries, SHO Ghazala Syed says: “The girl was aged 18 and had married of her own free will as per her family’s statement before court.”

Since then not a single case has been reported from anywhere.

Dr Badar Jameel, secretary of the Sindh women development department, says: “The child marriage act is among the 19 bills that are being printed at the moment. It got the governor’s assent in June and a copy was sent for printing on Aug 22 after which it will come out in the Sindh Government Extraordinary Gazette. A notification is eventually issued, copies of which will be distributed to the judges and police stations across the city.”

But so far, courts and police stations have not received a notification in this regard, show interviews with relevant officials.

Speaking about it, Dr Badar says: “We get our information of such cases from the newspapers or police stations. For this purpose, we have assigned our district offices, including Hyderabad’s women complaint centre, to report any such occurrence directly to the government departments. So far, we haven’t received any information about a child marriage happening in any of the districts.”

Explaining the law, Dr Badar says that this time around the law is “much stricter in its regulations. A girl and a boy have to be 18 years of age to be married. Anyone caught marrying off a person below the age of 18 will be put into jail for two years and will have to pay a fine of Rs1,000,000. It is not a bailable offence.”

Also, a judicial magistrate — “first class magistrate”, according to Dr Badar — will deal with cases of child marriages.

Besides, station house officers (SHOs) will also look over the cases. He, however, adds that the government does need “help of rights groups in identifying such cases as we can’t do it all on our own”.

But the situation on the ground is quite different. In the first six months of 2013, 506 child marriage cases were reported by Madadgar National Helpline’s Database, but there is no information on how many of those cases ended up in perpetrators getting punishment.

This year, not a single organisation, including those working on child rights, have an exact figure on how many cases have occurred so far. There are estimates that the number is in “hundreds”.

Vice chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in Karachi Asad Iqbal Butt says there are a few questions regarding the act. “First of all, a major weakness is that what will happen to the marriages that were executed before the act was amended and introduced in the assembly. Though I appreciate the unanimous decision taken by the provincial assembly in recognising the predicament of many, what next? What will happen after the law is passed? What about its implementation?”

Answering his own question, he says, the biggest problem in dealing with child marriages will be to address the prevailing mindset. “Many laws have been passed before. The issue is of its acceptance. Most people don’t take matters to court, we have to make sure that we reach them,” he adds.