While laws dating back to the colonial era set the minimum age of marriage for boys at 18 and girls at 16, there is really very poor implementation of this legislation. It has also changed only in Sindh where the Child Marriages Protection Act of 2013 lays down 18 as the legal age of marriage for both genders. At a recent conference in Karachi during which a study was launched, experts spoke on the issue and highlighted why girls are especially susceptible to early marriages. The report has been completed by the Centre for Reproductive Rights, a global advocacy body. Educational barriers, the perception that women are the property of male family members, and misconceptions about their sexual and reproductive rights are the most important features in pushing girls towards early marriages. Tradition and the fact that dowry is often lower for girls who are very young, according to the study, appear to be another factor in the problem.
Experts point out that young girls suffer more reproductive and sexual health problems when they are married as teenagers compared to their more mature counterparts. They are also more likely to suffer domestic violence. During the conference, speakers called for an implementation of existing legislation to ensure that existing age restrictions are enforced. They also demanded that the minimum age for girls to be married be raised to 18 across the country. Other studies in the past have highlighted the terrible problems with reproductive health that are faced by girls who give birth when too young. This issue is an important one in a society where such traditions still prevail. While levels of enrolment for girls in primary education have risen steadily over the last decades, only a small percentage of those girls go on to pursue secondary or higher education. This too promotes early marriage as does the notion that a younger wife will be more pliable and fit more easily into a new domestic environment. The very grave impact on the physical and emotional health of women is frequently ignored. They of course also have very little choice in matters of marriage. Ways to work towards solving these problems would require far greater awareness about reproduction, its mechanisms and the rights of women to exercise choice over their own bodies. These choices are instead made for them by men, with early marriage being one of the most visible manifestations of this.