28 November 2022
Pakistan has the 6th highest number of girls married before the age of 18 in the world. On day four of our 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence (GBV) we call for ending child marriage and protecting the girl child from exploitation, abuse and loss of childhood as a consequence of early marriage.
Child marriage robs girls of their childhood and future prospects. Girls who marry are less likely to finish school and are at higher risk of domestic violence, abuse and health issues. Young girls aged 15-19 have had the highest reported cases of domestic violence in the last 12 months (24.3%).
Child marriage also subjects girls to at-risk pregnancies, fistula, sexually transmitted infections or even death. Teen girls are also more likely to die from complications during childbirth than women in their 20s. Marrying at an early age also reduces a girl’s autonomy. One in ten young women aged 15-19 have a say in their own health care, in making major household purchases and visiting their own family or relatives.
In Pakistan, the definition of a child differs, across multiple laws in each of the four provinces. Under labour laws, a child is an individual below the age of 14 years, while under domestic labour laws, the age cap is 15 years. And as per the marriage laws depending on the province, a child could be someone under 16, or under 18 years of age.
Child protection laws, especially the ones for the prevention of child marriages, are cosmetic at best, if not downright farcical. For they do not seem to have any effect on underage marriages at all. Their continued prevalence even in this day and age is sad proof that stamping this practice out is not a priority for Pakistan’s institutions.
According to Nida Aly, Executive Director of the AGHS Legal Aid Cell – a pro-bono law firm providing assistance to women, children and minorities – cultural attitudes not only help facilitate child marriages in certain communities, but also play a significant role in favorable legal verdicts for such cases. In Pakistan’s courts, the judge’s personal point of view, rather than the law itself, is the ultimate deciding factor. And that, as Aly states, undoes what child marriage restraint laws set out to do.
According to Shariah law, a girl is considered an adult when she has her first menstruation cycle. Scores of girls have their first period when they are barely 12, even younger, and Aly says there is no shortage of cases where nikah-namas of girls this young are declared legal in courts.
The union may be declared illegal if one or both of the “married” individuals are minors as per the courts, but the individuals themselves must pursue annulling their nikah. In the event a minor girl seeks to annul her marriage, she must seek a khula. But such an outcome is extremely rare, practically unheard of since child marriages do not involve the disempowered victim’s consent. In fact the girl child would be more vulnerable than a woman could ever be.
Most cases involve minor girls who are coerced, forced, threatened or fooled into agreeing to marry their much older abductors/rapists. And once a nikah nama is signed, it may as well be impossible for the girl to be able to leave her marriage. In the rare instances a child is able to be rescued from a “solemnized” marriage, there are no institutions or even mechanisms in place to protect, facilitate and rehabilitate the victim until they are of age and capable of looking after themselves.
Aly states that the lack of a standard legal definition of a minor is a major obstacle to the implementation of child marriage restraint laws. Federal and provincial laws should all adhere to United Nations charters that define anyone under the age of 18 as a minor.