This article was originally published in The Friday Times on 10th Nov, 2017.
Many legislators have unsuccessfully tried to put an end to the discrimination of child marriage. The last such attempt was made by Marvi Memon, a member of the National Assembly, in early 2016. This year, it is heartening to see that a brave senator, Sehar Kamran, has moved another bill to amend the Child Marriages Restraint Act 1929. She has proposed to increase the minimum permissible age to 18 years bringing it at par with the limit set for boys. The Child Marriages Restraint (Amendment) Bill 2017 has been cleared by the Senate Standing Committee, and is about to be tabled in the upper house for approval. It is expected to generate a heated debate.
Here are nine reasons why it is important to bring the age limit for girls at par with that of boys when it comes to marriage:
Article 25 (2) of the Constitution of Pakistan states, “There shall be no discrimination on the basis of sex”. The Constitution of Pakistan was approved with consensus; it is a sacred document, and the State needs to follow the constitution and do away with this discrimination based on gender.
Pakistan has made international commitments by signing international conventions including the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, the United Nation’s Convention on Child Rights, and the United Nations Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Pakistan needs to honor its commitments.
We violate our daughters’ other rights by committing the offence of child marriages. Their rights to education, leisure, and to marry a person of their own informed choice are violated.
Four: double standard
We do not consider a 16-year-old girl mature enough to drive a vehicle, manage a bank account, cast her vote in elections, or enter into any other kind of contract, but we think it is alright for her to contract a marriage?
Probably the most serious problem with child marriage is how it puts at risk the health of the girl child. A teenage girl is twice as likely to die from complications in pregnancy and delivery than an adult woman. Children born of teenage mothers are 50% more likely to either be stillborn (dead at birth) or to die within a few weeks after birth. Even if she survives pregnancy and delivery, she develops physical complications like fistula.
The same effect is seen on a child bride’s psychological health. She is not a grown-up woman, yet she is expected to take care of not only her husband’s needs but also those of his entire family. She is too young to deal with the conflicting demands of her relatives, and she has no one to turn to for advice. She loses confidence, and may start thinking that she is incapable or suffer from low self-esteem. This leads to depression, anxiety and many more psychological complications.
A child marriage is often an unequal relationship between the partners. The power equation is highly tilted against the young child bride. She is not yet equipped with a good education, she has very little or no exposure to the world and its ways. She is not capable of earning anything. On the other hand, the husband most likely has more education, has exposure to the world outside, and is financially independent. This power equation creates space for abuse, and torture with the young girl unable to defend herself.
Another difficulty may arise if the husband dies, or divorces her; the young girl has nowhere to go, she has no education, no exposure, and may have a child or two to take care of. In such situations, the girl is made all the more vulnerable to suffer more abuse, harassment and blackmail at the hands of society.
Though I believe the arguments given above should be enough to persuade any thinking person that it is the right decision to raise the age to 18 years for girls, there are many who believe that the religion can be used to end the debate. However, even that argument does not hold much water because the Organization of Islamic Countries has already endorsed this proposition.
Article 26 of the Khartoum Declaration (approved in 2009) states, “Take the necessary measures to eliminate all forms of discrimination against girls and all harmful traditional or customary practices, such as child marriage…” This is a consensus declaration issued by an organization that represents 57 Muslim countries. We can safely assume that the OIC would have looked into the Islamic teachings before signing such a declaration.
There are quite a few Muslim countries which have set the marriage age for girls at a minimum of 18 years. They include Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Tunisia, Iraq, Algeria, Uganda, Oman, Syria, and Albania.
Islam has not set any specific age for marriage – neither for girls, nor for boys – nor has it specifically barred anyone from setting an age limit. Hence, setting an age limit would not be going against any specific injunction.