In an earlier blog, I had written in detail on the issue of child marriages and its reasons. Now I would like to focus on solving this issue. I know that many organizations are working on this issue and want to get either the existing law amended or a new law enacted. I personally am in favor of getting a new and comprehensive law enacted. The existing law “Child Marriages Restraint Act 1929” prescribes one month of imprisonment and/or Rs 1000 (US $ 10) as fine for the culprits. Furthermore, it discriminated between boys and girls as it sets different age limits for them. A boy should be 18 years old, while a girl should be 16 years old to get married. Even this law is being flouted with immunity and no one in Pakistan is bothered about it (I know I appear a fool lamenting the lack of implementation of such an insignificant law in a country where nobody is bothered if constitution is violated).
An important loophole in this law is the determination of age. As birth registration is not a common practice in Pakistan, determining age of a child is difficult. If caught, parents would claim that the girl is 16 years old. Then there is nothing police can do about it. DNA test is another way to determine age. However, Council of Islamic Ideology has recently declared that DNA test cannot be presented as evidence in rape cases. Only God knows whether Mullahs would allow us to use DNA test to determine a child’s age (or we will have to pull ourselves out of the clutches of Mullahs holding us by our necks, and sucking our blood).
Anyhow, let us get back to the original issue – the way forward. We need to have two-pronged strategy to solve this issue:
- New and comprehensive laws covering all aspects of child marriages
- Raising awareness among masses about the problems faced by child brides
You may be wondering why I emphasize so much on new law. I have already explained a little bit about the problems with the existing law. Additionally, I would like to remind you that after 18th amendment, the federal government cannot legislate on the issues of children and women. In this scenario, the civil society would have to focus their attention on the provincial governments. The new law should cover many more aspects of child marriages rather than just punishing the parents of a child bride. The new laws should cover:
- Birth Registration: it should be made mandatory. The process should be simple and easy. The local governments at Union Council level should be responsible for this. Proper birth registration would remove the grey areas regarding age determination.
- Age Limit: Age limit for both boys and girls should be same – 18 years. Remember, a person younger than 18 years is not allowed to drive a car, maintain a bank account, keep a passport or vote in elections. Marriage is a much more serious business. 18 years old person gets his/her computerized national identity card (CNIC).
- Marriage Registration: marriage registration also needs to be made mandatory. Similarly, CNIC should be mandatory for registration of marriage. If this happens, the child marriage issue would be resolved very quickly.
- Harsher Punishment: the crime should be punishable by at least 5 years of imprisonment along with a fine of Rs 500,000.
- Punish All The Parties: The punishment should be applicable to all the parties involved in a child marriage including parents of the bride and the groom, the Nikah Khwan/Registrar, witnesses, and the groom if he is 18 years old.
Law alone cannot help much unless people (at least majority of them) believe that child marriage is a cruel practice. To bring a change in the mindsets, we would need to run exhaustive campaigns to reach out to the people at the grassroots level. We need to communicate following messages effectively:
- Child marriage is not a solution to poverty. In fact, it ensures that poverty is transferred to the next generation. A person married in his/her childhood is deprived of education. The burden of a family comes very early in his/her life and makes it difficult to get out of poverty cycle. It is very likely that their children, too, would not get good education, and would continue to be plagued by poverty.
- Teenage pregnancy is something really dangerous and can result in the girl’s death.
- Child bride is unable to cope with the pressure of taking care of a family, and serving her in-laws – something that is expected of a daughter in law. She lives a miserable life. Physical and psychological violence becomes a norm in her life.
These messages should be conveyed through various means. Media can play a very effective role in this. Street theater and FM Radio can be used to make content in local languages/dialects for this purpose. All we need to do is hold thorough discussions with different communities on this issue and get to know how they perceive this issue. Only then, we can come up with something that would target their perceptions of the issue. The content of the messages must not be developed sitting in an air-conditioned office in Lahore/Karachi/Islamabad.
Another very important means of raising awareness is putting these issues in the curriculum for children. Only one lesson added to the syllabus of class 8 or 9 or 10 could do wonders in the long run. Remember that the lesson would be studied by millions of children in our schools every year. This would be the most cost-effective measure. We may not need to run any awareness campaigns on this issue 10 to 15 years after the inclusion of such lesson in curriculum.
At the end, I would suggest that all the organizations working towards eliminating child marriages in Pakistan should come together and form a network/coalition and make joint efforts to achieve their objective. If we succeed in getting a good law enacted in one province, it would become easier to convince governments in other provinces to follow the suite.