Ayesha Shaikh

Child marriage continues to persist in Pakistan, fueled by deep-rooted traditions, cultural practices, and societal norms. Despite being illegal under the Child Marriage Restraint Act (1929), which sets the legal age of marriage at 18, child marriage remains prevalent across the country.

Startling statistics reveal that Pakistan ranks sixth globally in terms of the number of girls married before reaching adulthood, as reported by UN Women in 2020.

This harmful practice primarily stems from a lack of awareness, entrenched customs, inadequate security measures, and the pervasive issue of poverty. Families often marry off their daughters at a young age to alleviate the financial burden of their upbringing.

While child marriage impacts both boys and girls, it disproportionately affects girls due to the conservative nature of Pakistani society, which restricts their freedom and opportunities for personal growth.

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Early marriage robs girls of their education and aspirations, condemning them to a life of physical and emotional violence. They face the health risks associated with early pregnancy and childbirth, becoming financially dependent on their husbands, and relinquishing their right to independence.

They are often denied a voice in family decisions, including those concerning their own welfare and the upbringing of their children. Instead of focusing on their personal development, these young girls assume adult responsibilities, adding to their mental and emotional burdens.

Girls hailing from rural and remote areas with lower socioeconomic status and reduced literacy rates are particularly vulnerable to early marriage, driven by economic constraints and notions of honor within their families.

Recognizing the growing discrimination against girls during childhood, the Sindh Assembly took a significant step by adopting the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act. This legislation raised the minimum age of marriage to 18 for both girls and boys, with violators facing legal consequences.

Similarly, Pakistan’s penal code has been revised to strengthen laws related to child marriage and hold offenders accountable.

However, despite these legal safeguards, the implementation and enforcement of these measures remain woefully inadequate. UNICEF reported in 2018 that approximately 18% of girls in Pakistan fall victim to child marriage. While efforts are underway to draft the Punjab Child Marriage Restraint Act, which aims to raise the minimum age for girls to 18, its passage into law is still pending.

Despite the efforts of international organizations, civil societies, and international conventions like the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women, child marriage continues to persist in Pakistan.

As a human rights activist, I have personally interviewed girls who were married off at a young age, witnessing the profound impact these decisions have on their lives. While it is crucial to address the health and human rights aspects of child marriage, we must also recognize the economic growth and development benefits that empowering girls can bring. With girls comprising more than half of Pakistan’s population, their active participation is essential for the country’s progress.

The recent backlash faced by UNICEF South Asia’s campaign to end child marriage highlights the misconceptions and resistance prevalent among some segments of the South Asian audience, including Pakistan.

The campaign emphasized the importance of education and a secure future for girls, but it faced unwarranted harassment from those who either misunderstood the message or supported the continuation of child marriage.

Child marriage in Pakistan is deeply intertwined with outdated customs and differing perspectives, perpetuating gender inequality and multiple layers of discrimination against women.

The United Nations has unequivocally declared child marriage a violation of human rights, setting a goal to end this practice globally by 2030 through the Sustainable Development Goals. While eliminating child marriage in Pakistan poses significant challenges, it is not insurmountable.

To effectively address child marriage, it is crucial to collaborate with religious leaders, community figures, and young people, raising awareness about the importance of girls’ education and empowering them through skill-building initiatives. Encouraging girls to pursue their aspirations and providing them with the necessary support and opportunities is paramount.

Moreover, the government must tackle the underlying social and economic factors that drive child marriage. It is imperative to develop a comprehensive and urgent action plan to combat this infringement of human rights, as it fuels numerous societal issues such as malnutrition, poverty, illiteracy, and underdevelopment.

Efforts must be directed toward implementing and enforcing existing laws while strengthening the legal framework to ensure stricter penalties for those involved in child marriage.

Comprehensive educational campaigns should be launched, targeting both urban and rural areas, to foster a shift in societal attitudes and norms surrounding child marriage. By challenging the old customary mindset and promoting the value of girls’ education and empowerment, progress can be made in achieving gender equality and ending the cycle of discrimination against women.

International organizations, civil societies, and the global community should continue to support and advocate for initiatives aimed at ending child marriage in Pakistan.

By working together, we can create a society where every girl has the opportunity to thrive, contribute to the nation’s growth, and fulfill her dreams.

While the path ahead may be challenging, it is not insurmountable. Ending child marriage is not only a matter of human rights but also a crucial step toward building a more inclusive, prosperous, and equitable society for all.

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