ENTRENCHED in gender discrimination and structural inequality, child marriage initiates a cycle of lifelong disadvantage for girls. According to a recent report by Save the Children, Every Last Girl: Free to Live, Free to Learn, Free from Harm, Pakistan is ranked 88 out of 144 countries where underage marriage, compounded by discriminatory social norms, affects large segments of the girl population. In Pakistan, because early marriage is attributed to poverty, lack of education, and tradition, women suffer at multiple stages of their lives. Girls are prevented from completing their education; they endure increased health risks, and face domestic violence and abuse. That it is the state’s duty to use its power to ensure that girls are accorded an equal chance to live, learn and be protected is forgotten. Consider the stark numbers: one girl under the age of 15 is married every seven seconds in developing countries, while one in three is married before the age of 18 and one in nine before the age of 15. Therefore, attention must be drawn to the suffering of child brides, including the increased risk of death and childbirth injuries when they have babies before their bodies are physically fit to reproduce. It is imperative for the state to institute protective legal and policy frameworks for girls’ rights.
Earlier this year, the move to increase the legal marriageable age from 16 to 18 years was rejected outright by the Council of Islamic Ideology. Because brutal anti-women practices — from ‘honour’ crimes to sexual violence — have no acceptance in democracies advocating women’s rights as human rights, it is inexplicable why the government must acquiesce to the demands of conservative lobbies at the cost of women’s lives. From the legal standpoint, the minimum marriageable age for girls must be 18 in all related legislation. With Sindh’s child marriage legislation as a precedent, the federal Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929 and the Punjab Child Marriages Restraint (Amendment) Act, 2015 must both be revised as they determine the marriageable age for girls at 16 and 18 for boys. Such laws are in contravention of Pakistan’s international obligations, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child included. Stopping child marriage has significant bearing on women’s education and there is a clear multiplier effect to educating girls. Thus the state must challenge discriminatory social norms buttressing child marriage by using legal and advocacy campaigning tools — because educated girls are a development investment.