Marrying young

March 1, 2020

As the debate on early marriages continues, its impact on the physical and mental growth of girls must be highlighted

It was heartbreaking to hear Shazia remember the 11 years she was not allowed to meet her mother. When she was finally allowed, the mother did not have long to live. It was because at age 13 or perhaps 14, Shazia was married to a man who was 60 years old at that time and had paid her family Rs60,000 for the transaction with an explicit undertaking that she would not meet her family for 10 years. She remembers the excitement on seeing her sister’s mother-in-law in the city she had moved to and, her subsequent meeting with her brother in a secret meeting. Shazia’s father was not an evil tyrant but he had to give away Shazia to pay for the dowry of his elder daughter, who was being pressured for items beyond their capacity. She says her extremely poor eyesight is a consequence of her constantly crying for her family. The first physical contact with her husband nearly bled her to death, prompting the doctor (who the husband was kind enough to call for a home visit) to prohibit her husband from any further interaction till she healed (two to three months). Shazia’s husband did not force her but, how many child brides are that fortunate?

Child marriage according to global standards is marriage below the age of 18 years. All child marriages are not only illegal because of violation of the minimum age of marriage, but are also forced and hence attract legislative penalties under Section 310-A of the Pakistan Penal Code. 310-A enforces a minimum punishment of 3 years imprisonment and a fine of Rs 500,000 for forcing a female into marriage and there are also penalties for breach of the minimum marriage age of 16 and 18, respectively for boys and girls in the Punjab, the KPK and Balochistan. Sindh has legislated a uniform age of 18 for both girls and boys. An attempt was also made in 2019, led by Senator Sherry Rehman to increase the minimum age of marriage for girls to 18 in ICT but certain political parties blocked the bill.

When poverty-stricken parents receive a generous stipend for their girl’s education, their incentive to marry them off is significantly reduced.

While the law gives the minimum age of 16, there is no real mechanism to confirm the age of the bride due to poor documentation of vital registrations for girls. Their births are not registered in many areas of Pakistan and the abysmal 50 percent literacy rate means that nearly half the women will not even have school certificates to ascertain their age. The law requires the nikah registrar (marriage registration officials) to confirm the age of marriage but lack of documents and social norms prevent the male nikah registrars from checking the bride’s documents or even make a visual guess. Raising the minimum age of marriage for girls to 18 will plug a big hole in this poor implementation of the law, by making CNIC the basis for age verification. Along with legislation raising the age of marriage, we also need to ensure nikah registrars understand the law and their responsibilities. A recent effort by the Punjab government to provide training to nearly 39,000 male nikah registrars demonstrated that 50 percent were not aware of the legislative amendments in 2012 and 2015 and, nearly 70 percent had not received any training/orientation to the law.

Marriage is considered to be a mithaq, a solemn covenant or agreement between husband and wife, and enjoined by The Quran [4:21]. Since no agreement can be reached between parties unless they are able to give free consent, how can minors (those under the age of 18) have the capacity to enter a contract. Unfortunately, despite national laws and international commitments, child/forced marriage remains a real threat for many in Pakistan. According to the Pakistan Demographic and Household Survey (PDHS 2017-18), 8 percent of women age 15-19 are pregnant with the first child or are already mothers. Accurate figures for child marriages are not available due to the practice of verbal marriage solemnization, non-registration and misrepresentation of age at marriage.

Child brides are often expected to bear children soon after marriage, which makes them vulnerable to pregnancy and childbirth related complications. It is recognised that girls who are married between the ages of 10-14 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women aged 15-19. Child marriage is also the major cause of high maternal mortality ratio of 140 per 100,000 live births (Index mundi). The World Health Organization reports that pregnancy complications remain the leading cause of death among girls aged 15 to 19 in countries with low- and middle-income countries accounting for 99 percent of global maternal deaths of women aged 15–49 years. Babies born to young mothers are also at greater risk: each year about 1 million babies born to adolescent girls die before their first birthday. In developing countries, if a mother is under 18, her baby’s chance of dying during the first year of life is 60 percent higher than a baby born to a mother older than 19. Another very serious consequence associated with early childbirth is obstetric fistula, a condition that causes chronic incontinence and occurs commonly in young girls who give birth before their bodies have matured. It causes constant, uncontrollable leaking of urine or feces, relegating the suffering women to a leper’s life.

Welcome measures of the governments and of the civil society organizations since the past decade to invest in girl’s education and to raise awareness of the harmful consequences of early marriages have led to reduction in the incidence of marriages below the ages of 16. When poverty-stricken parents receive a generous stipend for their girl’s education, their incentive to marry them off is significantly reduced. According to PDHS women with high school education marry 6.2 years later than women with no education

A uniform minimum age of 18 years for marriage of girls and boys will be a step towards promoting girl’s education, physical health and mental wellbeing. Older females are better prepared to take on the responsibilities of wifehood and motherhood. The Quran enjoins to “Do not dogmatically follow the status-quo and tradition; be open to new ideas” (22:1; 26:5; 38:7).

The writer is a gender and policy advisor

Marrying young: Impact of early marriages on girls physical and mental growth