Globally the average legal age of marriage for boys is 17 and 16 for girls. In many countries, including Pakistan and some civilized and modern states of USA and Europe, children, particularly girls, are married at a much younger age.

Unfortunately, the tradition of child marriage exists even in the present-day highly developed and civilized societies. Although in the US, the official marital age is 18 for men and women yet, The Independent a popular UK Newspaper reported on Wednesday 9 March 2016 that in the American state of Virginia, it is officially still legal for girls as young as 12 or 13 to be brought to a courthouse with evidence of a pregnancy and wed.

In the state more than 4,500 minors were married between 2000 and 2013, including about 220 who were 15 or younger. In Maryland and New York 3,853 minors were married between 2000 and 2010. In Spain legal marriage age for girls is 14 and it has decided to increase it to 16 to bring it in line with the rest of Europe.

Estonia now has a low marriage age with teenagers able to wed at 15 with parental approval. In Niger, where the age of legal marriage for girls is 15, 76 percent of girls are believed to be married before their 18th birthday.

Muslims are permitted to get married at 12 for girls and 16 for men; Hindus at 14 and 18. In Saudi Arabia and Yemen age of consent for marriage ranges between 9 and 13 years.

In the US, some lawmakers are striving to change the state’s archaic laws which stipulate the marriage age of children as young as 12 years. Recently, a lawmaker, Virginia Senator Jill Vogel R-Fauquier introduced legislation seeking raise in the minimum age for marriage to 16 to bring it in line with other states. Ms Vogel said:

"Is that not a crime? They are truly victims in every way. Someone should be asking the question, ‘Well if this 13-year-old is pregnant, isn’t that evidence of statutory rape?’"

In Pakistan, child marriage is legally prohibited under the Child Marriage Restraint Act 1929. Under Section 2 of the Act, the minimum age for marriage is 18 for males and 16 for females. A violation of the Act is punishable with a fine of Rs.1,000 and an imprisonment of one month or both.

The Sindh Assembly is the first assembly in Pakistan to pass a bill of this kind. The Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act 2013 – prohibiting the marriage of children, both boys and girls, below 18 – declared marriage below the age of 18 punishable by law. In cases of underage marriage, parents, bride and groom can all be sentenced to three years of rigorous imprisonment and can be fined with Rs.45,000. But regrettably, due to the lack of a proper implementation mechanism, the prevalence of child marriages is extensive throughout Pakistan.

It is pertinent to mention here that child marriages take place for various reasons such as customs, traditions, monetary benefits, and lack of awareness among people about hazards to be experienced by child-brides. However, despite widespread condemnation, the practice of child marriage is a ubiquitous phenomenon in the country.

Pakistani society is a patriarchal society based on an unnatural process of gender discrimination which treats women as inferior, especially in the rural areas of the country where daughters and sisters are considered an economic deadweight. In this society, the inhuman customary practice of giving young girls in marriage to a victim’s family to settle dispute between families exists. These girls live dejected lives because their in-laws treat them as slaves.

In reality, child brides get dependent upon their husbands and are deprived of their fundamental rights to health, education and economic opportunities. They are neither physically, nor emotionally, willing or able to be wives or mothers. They often experience dangerous complications during pregnancy and childbirth, at times even getting infected with HIV/AIDS. Early marriage thwarts personal development and growth of child brides as they constantly weather physical, mental and emotional changes before reaching adulthood.

In the heinous tradition of child marriages, in which Pakistan takes the top rank, parents take away the right of their children of selecting their spouses themselves and impose their decisions on them.  There is clear disparity in marriage traditions in rural and urban areas of the country. In rural areas, parents acting upon established outdated social norms and rituals mostly get their children married in the same caste, breed and community. On the contrary, in urban areas, parents are powerless to bring about these norms and rituals because their children being educated and grown up in a free society are well-informed about their rights. Therefore, they believe in liberty of selecting their own life-partner themselves.

According to UNICEF’s estimates, child marriage is one of the main forms of child sexual abuse and exploitation of girls. Despite the fact, globally around 1 in 3 young women currently aged 20 to 24 years, approximately some 70 million, were married before the age of 18. Of those, some 23 million entered into marriage or union before the age of 15. The tradition of child marriages, as we know, is a pervasive phenomenon in Pakistan. Approximately 37 percent of females get married before reaching the age of 18 and 70,000 girls aged between 15 and 19 die each year during pregnancy and child birth in the country.

Child marriage is sheer violation of human rights. It deprives child bride of their childhood, education and health. To control the practice of the child marriages in the society and protect lives and futures of thousands of girls, there is a need to galvanize civil society, human rights activists, and educated men, women, girls and boys across the country. Education is one of the most effective ways to prevent and end child marriages. Empowerment of women politically, socially and economically through promoting and protecting their right to education is a pre-requisite to have the objective.

In Pakistani society, the role of male members of a family as the decision makers and their conventional behaviours, traditional attitudes and cultural norms are the biggest impediments in preventing child marriages. The initiative to highlight the importance of women’s rights and change the attitudes of the society towards women is to be taken essentially. Therefore, there is a dire need to work directly and repeatedly through social mobilization mechanism, which needs to be carried out at the grass root level in order to sensitize male members and change their attitudes towards women.