Child marriage – a very cruel practice indeed – is very common in Pakistan. I came across many
news reports of child marriages and wanted to write about it, but could never furnish any data and did not have the time, capacity and resources to conduct a survey. However, I was pleasantly surprised when I found very authentic data on this important issue in Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey (PDHS) conducted in 2006 and 2007. PDHS mentions in its section on teenage fertility that almost half of the girls of 15 to 18 years of age were already pregnant or had a baby to take care of. The figure is, no doubt, shocking.
If you find a 15-year old girl already pregnant or having a baby to take care of, it effectively means a baby has to take care of another baby. It means she has been deprived of good education – a teenage mother means she could not complete 10 years of education which is a basic right according to the constitution of Pakistan. It means she does not enjoy good health as well. Consult any doctor and you would know how problematic it could be for a teenage girl to become pregnant. And last but not the least, it means she has been deprived of her right to choose her life partner.
Next, I tried to find out why child marriages, that too in such high proportion, are taking place in Pakistan, and the answer is not simple. The reasons are multiple and complex. There are financial, social and religious reasons behind this cruel practice. However, I personally believe poverty and the concept of honor in our part of the world are two most important reasons. The rest of issues are brought up just to hide the real issues.
Though poverty does not need any explanation, the concept of honor needs to be explained here as some of my readers from other regions of the world may not understand the point until they know what I mean by honor. Honor of the family is connected with women’s chastity and fidelity. If a woman of the family has an illicit relation, the honor of the family is tainted and must be restored by killing the woman. It usually does not apply to men of the family. In extreme situations, a mere suspicion of any wrongdoing on the part of a woman may result in her murder (this notion is used and abused by men freely to get rid of unwanted woman in the family).
This notion of honor gives rise to child marriages. Parents of a single girl, who has reached puberty, are in a constant fear that she may tarnish the honor of the family by developing some sort of illicit relationship. In that case, the male members, most probably the father, would have to kill the daughter. So it is safe to get her married as soon as she reaches puberty, and get rid of the fear looming over their head. She has to be handed over to her in-laws with her virginity intact. Parents try to fulfill this responsibility as soon as possible.
Patriarchal mindset is also responsible for this practice. Men do not like to marry adult, fully grown woman. The reason is simple. “An adult woman is difficult to manipulate, while young girls are very submissive and yield easily to men’s demands” retorted an old trader who was about to marry a 13 years old girl. He had paid Rs 30,000 (US $ 315) to the girls’ father, who was working as a guard at the trader’s warehouse. See the marriage of convenience between poverty and patriarchal mindset.
This patriarchal mindset is not always that naked and direct. It often hides behind religion. It should be noted that many attempts have been made to enact laws to ban child marriages, but it is always mullahs who would block all such attempts citing religious scriptures, and the holy prophet’s marriage to Ayesha Siddiqua. Due to the mullahs regular preaching of child marriages, there is a considerable number of people who believe it is a sin for girl to remain single after reaching puberty, and her parents would be held responsible for the sin in the life hereafter.
This is, of course, not an exhaustive list of reasons. However, it is important to understand and solve this issue, which remains a great challenge for the government and civil society alike.