In what has become tragically recurrent, a five-year-old girl was married off to a 25-year-old man on the orders of the village panchayat. The father of the girl said that he was forced to marry off his daughter as punishment for his son marrying a woman without her family’s approval. When he refused, the child was forcibly taken away. As repugnant as this story is, there is an even more repulsive aspect to it. The district police refused to act because according to the Station House Officer, since the parents agreed to the marriage in the panchayat, the police would not interfere.
Many factors are at play here. First, the parallel justice system that is prevalent throughout the country in the absence of the rule of law. A panchayat and its decrees have no legal weight and in fact, they bite into the government’s writ. Even the police, the officials representing the government, decided to abide by the rules of the panchayat than enforce the laws of the government they had taken an oath to enforce. The second is a depraved outlook that passes for ‘justice’ and ‘custom’. Such practices are indefensible morally, culturally or from a religious point of view. Exchanging little girls for settling family disputes or economic advantage is akin to human trafficking and ought to be outlawed. But given how widespread child marriage is, it is obviously not only accepted, but defended by many circles, including the Council of Islamic Ideology that has been lobbying the government to lower the legal age of marriage. The child’s consent is absent in any case, whether the marriage takes place as punishment or not.
There is also a thin glimmer of hope in this madness. Recently, the Sindh Assembly passed a bill banning the medieval practice of child marriages. Evidently, enough cases have occurred to have prompted the provincial government into action. One hopes that this case will be a harbinger of a similar set of laws to be passed — and enforced — by other provinces as well.