Sindh Women Development Minister Tauqeer Fatima Bhutto said that the province had played a vital role in highlighting legislation to combat child marriages and its actions were greatly appreciated at the federal level, but on the other hand, some experts pointed out that the phenomenon was most prevalent in Sindh.
These observations were made at a two-day sensitisation conference with media personnel on “Adolescent Girls Empowerment (AGE)” that opened at a local hotel on Monday morning.
The workshop was organised by the Health and Nutrition Development Society (HANDS), a brainchild of world-renowned Pakistani pediatrician Professor AG Billoo. Rutgers WPF, Women Development Department and the Research & Advocacy Fund (RAF) supported the workshop.
The workshop attracted a substantial number of journalists, including senior media personnel.
“We will appreciate ideas from your brilliant minds,” the minister said referring to journalists.
Bilquis Rehman, the general manager of Information Communication, Resource & Advocacy at HANDS, in her exhaustive presentation, said 100 million girls worldwide would be married before 18-years-age in the next decade. She said 58 million girls aged between 15 and 19 would be married worldwide in the same period.
“Twenty-five young girls become child brides each day,” she lamented. Rehman pointed out that girls younger than 15-years-of-age were more than likely to die in childbirth than those in their 20s.
She said the number of women worldwide suffering from obstetric fistula, a debilitating complication of childbirth, especially immature girls, was two million.
The number of adolescents infected daily by HIV worldwide was 6,000, she pointed out.
“As many as 895 cases of child marriages were reported in Pakistan in 2009 alone,” she observed.
“In Pakistan, it is estimated that 30 percent of all marriages fall into the category of child marriages,” Rehman highlighted.
The general manager said statistics in Pakistan also revealed that child marriages were more prevalent in interior Sindh than in other parts of the country.
She pointed out that girls who marry before 18-years-of-age were more likely to experience domestic violence than their peers who wed later. “Girls who marry early are more likely to believe that a man is sometimes justified in beating his wife,” Rehman continued.
The HANDS general manager said child brides often show signs symptomatic of child sexual abuse and post-traumatic stress. “Such symptoms include feelings of hopelessness, helplessness and severe depression,” she said.
Rehman went on to say that girls with low bargaining power in the household were more likely to experience violence by an intimate partner. “Women with low levels of education, aged between 15 and 19, were at higher risk of violence than better educated or older women.”
She said that for many families, child marriage was seen as a way to protect young girls, ensuring they have a man to care for them. Unfortunately, early marriage does not protect girls, but leaves them physically and socially vulnerable to illness, poverty, and gender inequality.
The general manager maintained that contrary to the belief that marriage protects individuals from HIV/AIDS; rates of infection were higher among child and adolescent brides, because of spousal age gaps, unprotected sex, and the transition from no sexual exposure to frequent intercourse.
Fewer opportunities lead to poverty, she said. “In certain villages, I found either elderly women or children due to malnutrition,” she lamented.
“Nikah means consent and a child can only give consent when she is mature. Everybody knows the issue, but realisation is needed.”
Moderator Jami Chandio said although child marriages was a South Asian issue, but in Sindh, 72 percent of girls gets married under the age of 20 and that affects their physical health.
“The situation is alarming because research shows that girls are married to elderly men,” he said. He said as compared to Sindh and Balochistan, the situation in Punjab was better.
In Khayber Pukhtoonkhua, he said, 63 percent of girls get married under the age of 20.
Chandio said HANDS conducted sampling in Jacobabad, where there was a tribal setup and Matiari where “Peeri-Mureedi” was prevalent.
In Pakistan, he said, a man can marry at 18 while a female at 16 and that was in violation of UN conventions. Pakistan, he regretted, was a signatory of UN conventions, but nothing changed. Child marriages, he said, were even against the 1973 Constitution of Pakistan.
“Basic education is the fundamental right of a child, hence it’s the responsibility of the state to ensure it,” he said.
He said the main objective of the workshop was to seek support from the media in ensuring legislation from the Sindh Assembly against child marriages because after the passage of 18th Amendment, the federal government had nothing to do with it. He said learned Muslim scholars agree that child marriages had nothing to do with Islam.