Child marriage basically refers to an unlawful and illegal practice in which boys and girls are married off before they reach a minimum age of adulthood. Internationally, underage marriage is considered as a criminal practice as well as a human rights violation. Likewise, in Pakistan there is also a Federal Child Marriage Restraint Act 1929 and Punjab Child Marriage Restraint (Amendment) Act 2015 which fix marriageable age for girls at 16 and boys at 18. These both laws declare underage marriage a punishable offence. Regrettably, these existent laws haven’t brought any considerable decline in early marriage cases. Since these amendments have been enforced, there has been little action against child marriages in the country.

That is why child marriage is highly prevalent in Pakistan, particularly in rural and disadvantaged areas that is adversely impacting the sexual, reproductive, physical and physiological wellbeing of young women of the country. Almost one-third of girls in Pakistan marry before they approach 18 years of age. Reportedly, the country has one of the highest numbers of child marriage in the world. According to WHO report (Demographics of Child Marriage in Pakistan), 21 percent girls under the age of 18 and 3 percent of girls under 15 get married in Pakistan.

Additionally, the rate of forced child marriages in Pakistan is increasingly high. Huge proportion of young girls are forced to marry under the age of 18 due to myriads of socio-cultural reasons in the country. According to UK’s Forced Marriage Unit, Pakistan with 439 cases, ranked the highest among top four ‘focus’ countries in 2017, followed by Bangladesh, Somalia and India.

There is no denying the fact that child marriage deprives women of their fundamental right to childhood, education, health and opportunity. Apart from the denial of basic human rights, it also leaves them the most vulnerable to physical, mental and physiological abuse. When girls are married at an early age, they are more likely to face domestic violence, early pregnancies and malnutrition issues. According to UNICEF, for child brides, the risk of domestic violence, early pregnancy and martial rape increases at an alarming rate. Owing to child marriages, large number of girls drop out of school and on the other, they enjoy very few economic and employment opportunities.

It is pertinent to mention that the high ratio of maternal and infant mortality in Pakistan have close link with early marriages. Child marriage is one of the leading causes of death among girls aged between 15 to 19 during pregnancy and child birth.

It is an established fact that underage marriage cause wide-ranging and deleterious effects on child brides’ by degrading their status and autonomy on socio-economic and educational fronts. Extreme poverty, gender inequality, patriarchal customs, cultural notions and lack of education and awareness are the primary reasons behind this harmful traditional practice. It is evident, early marriages will keep on leaving young girls in a lurch until these deeply-entrenched contributors of this criminal practice are not uprooted efficiently. According to news reports, more than 140 million underage girls will be married between 2011 to 2020 in Pakistan.

Thus, it is high time that all of us come up with productive strategies to protect girls and young women from being subject to early marriages. Eradication of child marriage calls for long-term polices concerning women empowerment, awareness programmes and effective law enforcement and implementation. Therefore, government must make concerted efforts to empower young women through formal education, skill enhancement and training. State institutions should work on implementing laws in letter and spirit. Most importantly, media, civil society and Non-Governmental Organizations must play their key part in spreading awareness about the severe consequences of child marriage at the gross roots level across Pakistan.

Furthermore, Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Number 5 mainly focuses on eliminating all forms of harmful practices including underage and forced marriages through gender equality and women empowerment. Hence, government must initiate measures for the timely and efficient implementation of this SDG so that girls’ right to childhood, education and health can be guaranteed.

Assad Ali Lund,

Sindh, January 22.