Missing childhoods – 30 Nov 2022

THE fact is that despite some legal efforts to end the curse of child marriage taking place in Pakistan under the guise of culture and tradition, this deplorable practice continues unabated. The Federal Shariat Court recently took suo motu notice of the marriage of a six-year-old girl in Balochistan; the case may sound alarming but it is just the tip of the iceberg. According to Unicef, there are around 19m child brides in Pakistan, with one in six young women married in childhood. Efforts have been made legally to change the age of marriage for both men and women to 18, yet despite these attempts, only Sindh has managed to do the needful by passing the relevant law. Even then, unfortunately, the province has the highest number of child marriages after KP.

The negative effects of child marriage on young boys and girls, primarily the latter, are quite well-documented. There can be little argument with the fact that when children are married off, they lack the level of maturity needed to make important life decisions, while they are robbed of their childhood. Moreover, there are serious health and psychological risks of marrying off young girls, while the children they give birth to can also suffer from health issues. Child brides tend to leave their education incomplete, and also face a greater threat of spousal abuse.

To tackle this problem, the state needs to address two key areas: legal safeguards and their implementation, as well as changing mindsets in the long term. While Sindh has taken the lead by passing a law raising the legal age of marriage to 18 for both sexes, the other provinces need to replicate this progressive legislation. Yet the best laws in the world will remain useless unless they are implemented. Therefore, a national effort is needed to enforce such laws. This leads to the second issue of changing society`s thinking about child marriage. Particularly in the more conservative and rural areas, it will take time to eliminate this social evil. Thus the state, as well as NGOs, need to continually engage religious scholars, tribal elders and community leaders, as well as the women of areas where child marriage is prevalent, to explain the harm this practice does to young children. Change will not be immediate, but with legal safeguards and community engagement this destructive custom can one day be stamped out.

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