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Little girls not brides...

February 6, 2018
By Tanveer ul Islam

It is difficult to believe that child marriages take place in over 50 countries around the world. Pakistan is one such country where child marriage is rampant. You! takes a look...

It is difficult to believe that child marriages take place in over 50 countries around the world. Pakistan is one such country where child marriage is rampant. You! takes a look...

In Pakistan, more than 77 per cent of the marriages are settled under some kind of customary practices, tells a report by Rutgers Pakistan, a development group at the forefronts of reducing child marriages.

Child marriage can be a topic we feel we have read about before, but it takes the images of children, with a sense of sad acceptance in their eyes, to bring home the reality of what it means to be genuinely robbed of childhood. Unluckily, child marriages are common in Pakistan’s rural areas where parents force children - especially girls - to marry off at an early age. Southern Punjab, parts of KP and interior Sindh are hotspots of this practice that not only robs children of childhood joys but brings forth serious health complications for young girls who become pregnant early and frequently.

Another study reveals that 34 per cent marriages are settled before the age of 16 which is against even Muslim Family Laws. Really disturbing situation is in Umarkot and Sanghar districts of Sindh province where 70 per cent of girls are married before 15 years of age, informs a recent report by Plan-International Pakistan, another development agency working to improve child rights conditions in the country since 1997.

It is often warned by the health professionals to stop marrying off girls at a fragile age, as young mothers and the babies - they give birth to - are at greater risk of dying early.

Efforts to put a check on such marriages we first trace back to British times when Child Marriage Restraint Act was enacted in 1929, but the law proved useless because of loopholes and lack of official will for implementation. In recent years, we see international community pressing Pakistan to take effective measures in this regard but unfortunately we see a lukewarm response from the government side. Of all the four provinces, only Sindh has come up with legislation banning the under 18 marriages and making the act punishable by law.

“Child marriage prohibiting law is there in Sindh but nobody knows about it including police, judiciary and social welfare departments”, reveals Azeem Faisal of Plan-International Pakistan, who heads a five-year project in Sindh aiming to reduce the incidence of child marriages and teenage pregnancies among rural communities. “We are going to assist provincial government to devise implementation mechanism for Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act 2013, this will help build capacity of concerned departments to play their role effectively”, he adds.

‘A child having a child...’

Consequences of child marriages are really horrible and cannot be best summarised than the words of Professor Babatunde, a former executive director of the United Nations Population Fund, who fought against the issue world over. “If you marry off a girl at the age of 10, and she starts to have a baby by 11 or 12, that is a child having a child, she is not ready, she does not even understand what it is, physically, emotionally and psychologically; she is not ready”. Babatunde’s voice echoes when we come across a 2015 media report when a 13-year-old girl gave birth to a baby in interior Sindh. Her son died within half an hour of being born while she herself suffered from serious childbirth injuries. Her parents moved her from hospital to hospital to save her life. This is just one example but if you talk to reproductive health activists working at grass root level, they cite many such incidents that go unreported in the mainstream media.

Apart from honour, there is another reason contributing to the practice of underage marriages and this is extreme poverty in rural areas where girls have no opportunities to contribute to the family income. So, the poor parents who see their daughters as a burden, try to marry them off at an early age so that they may get rid of their expenses. This shows that parents solemnise childhood marriages as solutions to their social and economic problems but unknowingly invite more complications in their lives.

Educate your girls!

Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act is a welcoming step, but we need to move beyond legislation and reach out to communities at grass root level and give them alternate and decent solutions to change their lives. In the past, we have seen development sector organisation raising extensive awareness on the issue of child marriages in the country, but mere awareness programmes do not bring any change for those living on the edge of life. Rural communities practicing early marriages need educational and economic opportunities to move away from traditional practices. It is now an established fact worldwide that girls’ education is basic to any social change. Umarkot and Sanghar districts in Sindh, where forced marriages are routinely solemnised, have a distressing situation in this regard. Umarkot has an overall education rate of 35 per cent while Sanghar stands at just 26 per cent.

Reducing child marriages in Sindh is a test case for government and development agencies involved, and if efforts become successful then the best practices can be replicated in Punjab; where last month a 20-year-old disgruntled bride, wanting to avenge her forced marriage, served poisonous drink to her in-laws, sixteen of the family members including her husband and a six year-old-girl died as a result while many others are still hospitalised. This is a rare incident that caught media’s attention, but there is a range of issues associated with girls’ forced marriages that need our attention.