Barriers to education, the perception of women and girls as property rather than rights bearers, existing norms regarding financial and physical security, and the stigma surrounding female sexuality and reproductive rights have been highlighted as some of several factors that put girls at a higher risk of child marriage in the country.
This was stated in a report titled ‘Ending impunity for child marriages in Pakistan: Normative and implementation gaps’ prepared by the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) and launched on Tuesday at a local hotel.
The event was jointly organised by the National Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and the CRR, a global advocacy body, with the aim to discuss the multiple challenges being faced in the implementation of existing affirmative laws and identify other causes of systemic discrimination in law and practice.
Speakers included Sindh Minister for Women Development Shehla Raza, NCHR member Anis Haroon, CRR Advocacy Advisor Asia Sara Malkani, and Iqbal Detho, a child rights activist. Discussing the discrepancies between child marriage legislation and personal laws, the speakers called for enactment and implementation of pro-women laws to curb child marriages.
“Child marriage in Pakistan constitutes an ongoing human rights violation on a large scale. Pakistan ranks sixth in the world in terms of the highest absolute numbers of child marriage. Twenty one per cent of girls in Pakistan are married by the age of 18,” the report stated.
Parents’ decision to marry their daughters as children is driven primarily by economic, social, and structural issues. “In many parts of South Asia, including Pakistan, the payment of dowry by the bride’s parents to the groom and his family at the time of marriage is a customary practice. The younger the bride, the lower the amount expected to be paid. As a result, there is a presumption that parents benefit financially if they marry their daughters at a young age,” it added.
According to the report, child marriage causes an array of social and reproductive and sexual health harms for women and girls in Pakistan. “While child marriage affects both boys and girls, the practice harms girls to a greater degree because it adversely affects their reproductive health and exposes them to domestic violence.”
Girls’ rights to sexual health and reproductive independence are significantly compromised without adequate information on sex and marriage. Access to comprehensive sexuality education is limited for children and adolescents due to economic and cultural barriers, the report observed.
The Child Marriage Restraint Act 1929 (CMRA), which is applicable in most provinces of Pakistan, prohibits the marriage of a boy under the age 18 and the marriage of a girl under the age of 16. “In this way, the law does not prohibit all child marriages, as international law defines a child as anyone under the age of 18.5.”
As per the report, in 2015, Punjab passed a number of amendments to the CMRA but did not raise the age of marriage for boys or girls. So far, the only province in Pakistan with independent legislation on child marriage is Sindh, which passed the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act in 2013 (SCMRA).
The SCMRA sets forth the uniform minimum age of marriage as 18 for both girls and boys. But in spite of these and other laws prohibiting child marriage, the practice remains widespread, with reports of girls as young as the age three being given away in marriage, it added.
The report also recommended declaring marriage below the minimum legal age as void and having no legal effect under any pretext, such as custom, religion, or traditional practices. “Provide legislative guarantees ensuring that victims of child marriage have rights of maintenance and that any children born within child marriages have rights, including the right to inheritance, as well as access to shelter and to financial, legal, and psychological assistance.”
It also called for the introduction of penalties for officials, including police and magistrates, who fail to take action on complaints of incidents of child marriage or to take measures to prevent child marriages.