Where the National Assembly has failed, the Senate seems to be picking up the slack. The Senate Functional Committee on Human Rights on Wednesday unanimously passed a bill to amend the Child Marriage Restraint Act and to raise the marriageable age to 18. The Child Marriage Restraint (Amendment) Bill 2018 had been introduced by Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) Senator Sherry Rehman last month.
This amendment was undoubtedly needed. Pakistan has ratified international conventions dedicated to preventing child marriages and increasing the marriageable age to eighteen. Child marriages have been the source of a wide range of other problems in the country, including heightened health risks for women and lack of awareness around reproductive and sexual health, mortality during pregnancy, unbridled population growth, female illiteracy and abusive marriages. What is unfortunate is that if passed, this bill’s jurisdiction extends only to Islamabad- in accordance with the 18th amendment, each province would have to pass its own bill to raise the marriageable age. This is unfortunate considering the highest incidents of child marriages occur in rural areas of Punjab and KP- due to objections of religious parties, such bills are difficult to get passed in the provincial assemblies. Thus it is helpful that the Senate, while discussing this bill, issued a statement that this bill did not go against Islamic values.
However, it must be noted that with social policy, the more difficult part is ensuring implementation. Just like Anti-Dowry laws which prohibit bridal gifts costing more than PKR 5000, laws pertaining to age limits in marriage are often not enforced and the ban in child marriage is simply not paid heed to by the public. If the government truly means to make a social change, it needs to include and implement punitive measures for those who force their children into early marriages.
It is hopeful to see progressive legislative ideas and parliamentarians discussing social reform, after a parliamentary stalemate of several months. The Senate introducing and passing the amendment is only the first step. The bill will need to go to the national assembly and then be assented to by the president. It is good to see some good legislative come from at least one branch of the parliament but until national assembly members are able to put aside their political grievances and cooperate with each other in the standing committees, these progressive bills will go nowhere.