“I wanted to study further but my family could not afford the cost of medicines for father, let alone cover the expenses of my education. We were six sisters and one brother. My father wanted to arrange marriages of all of his daughters while he was alive. It would have lessened the burden on the family to feed so many mouths. Furthermore, it would have saved the family from dishonour lest any girl developed any affairs. So he arranged my marriage in a hurry without enquiring about the groom. All he knew was that the man I was going to marry worked in an automobile shop which turned out to be a lie. I did not know what ‘marriage’ meant. I had just attended some marriage ceremonies and knew that the bride wears beautiful clothes and everybody congratulates her and prays for her happiness and she gets lots of gifts. I wanted all that but I never knew what happens when the guests leave the house,” says 13-year-old Shahana from a small village in district Bhakkar of Punjab who was studying in eighth grade when she was forced to marry because her father had diabetes and heart problems and could not afford to raise his children. She faced dreadful violence at home, gave birth to two girls, and there was no one earning in the house.
In Pakistan, marriage at an early age is a reality for many young girls. According to UNICEF, from 1987-2005, child marriages accounted for 32 percent of all marriages in Pakistan. Early marriage often leads to early conception and high-risk pregnancy. The Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey, 2006-07 mentions in its section on teenage fertility that almost half of girls between 15 and 18 years were pregnant or had a baby to take care of. It gives us a pretty clear picture of how many children get married before reaching the age of 18 years. The prevalence of child marriages was also noted in a study on domestic violence conducted by Rutgers WPF — 60 percent of women covered under the study were married before the age of 18. “I do not know what childhood is as I had to take responsibilities like a mature woman at the age of 11. Now I want my children to enjoy each and every moment of their childhood,” said Irum Naz who was married to a 61-year-old man when she was just 11. She has three children to take care of and an ailing husband who needs spinal surgery. She is illiterate, and is unable to cope with the demands of such a life. She curses her parents for taking the decision of marrying her at such a tender age.
Parents who decide to marry off their daughters when they are children do so for many reasons. Those living in poverty may feel they have little option but to accept the bride-price offered for their young daughter’s hand. Parents facing conflict and insecurity may feel that marrying off their daughter will ensure her safety. And some families choose child marriages because that is the way things have been for generations. Just recently 10-year-old Tehmina, who belongs to the Bhanger caste was married through Watta-Satta (bride exchange). Her parents received Rs 80,000 and paitlikhi (ownership) of her first born female child, as customs dictate. After being subjected to severe forms of domestic violence, she was given a divorce and sent back to her parents. Once again, her mother is looking to sell her off to the highest bidder in order to benefit from her. Child marriage is one of the most prevalent forms of violence against women. It leads to estrangement from the family at a very young age. It represses individual freedom and curtails the right to pursue healthy activities or education and can also result in bonded labour, slavery, sexual exploitation and domestic violence. It has been documented as an impediment to social development for young girls. The strain on the physical health of a child bride puts heavy biological stress for a set of activities that her body is unable to cope with. In addition to early child marriage, mostly girls are also expected to do domestic chores that often include physical support in agricultural field work, while her body is already trying to cope with multiple past pregnancies. Besides physical effects, there are serious emotional effects that young girls have to deal with. An adolescent girl is many times not encouraged to meet her parents, ending up feeling estranged in her new surroundings. Early marriages not only constrict the physical health of girls but also of their children: the mother is not ready to assume the responsible and well-planned love function that motherhood entails. The care and supervision of children suffers because a young mother is not mature enough to carry the responsibility of her children as she herself is a child.
Pakistan is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) which mentions the right to protection from child marriages. Furthermore, child or early marriage refers to any marriage of a child younger than 18 years old, according to Article 1 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Pakistan signed in 1990. Of course there is no awareness about these laws, especially in the rural areas of Pakistan where many people think that if a girl is not married soon after puberty, then she becomes a threat to the family’s honour. In Pakistan the issue of early marriages remains unaddressed and no measures are taken by the state to arrest this trend. Though some patchy efforts were made by civil society and UN organisations, they were not enough even to make it a mainstream issue. Though the Child Marriages Restraint Act 1929 discourages child marriages, the law, as is obvious from the title, was enacted 82 years ago and has not been modified since then. It discriminates between boys and girls as it sets the marriageable age for boys at 18 and for girls at 16. The punishment for violating this law is a fine of Rs 1,000 or one month imprisonment. Furthermore, if a marriage involving young children takes place, the adults who agreed to the marriage and arranged it are punished, but the marriage does not stand dissolved. As usual, the implementation of this law is non-existent. A few days ago, the Sindh Assembly set a precedent by passing a law declaring marriage below the age of 18 years punishable by law and a violation of the rights of children, becoming the first province to do so, but there is still a dire need for proper rules and a meaningful awareness campaign, especially among the police, marriage registrars and the judiciary. It is important for the state to take corrective measures. We are hoping that all the other provinces will take the important step of passing similar laws. The monitoring and implementation of the law should be mandatory, while the law should be publicised properly so that everyone in the country knows about it.
The writer works in the development sector