Many girls in South Asia (1 in 4 young women) often get married against their will. Given the stark statistics, Unicef estimates that the region will take at least 55 years to completely eliminate child marriages. And if the South Asian countries are interested in achieving their target of eliminating child marriages by 2030, they have to increase their efforts by seven times. Even though authorities in Pakistan have taken various steps to control child marriages, a lot needs to be done to create a safe environment for young women and girls. The first step should be to have a uniform policy across the country. At present, the legal age for marriage in Pakistan is 18, but the Punjab government has set the age to 16, allowing most people to travel to the province to get married and escape the law. While the country has witnessed a fall in child marriages – at least 18 per cent women are married in childhood as compared to the global average of 19 per cent – the issue still requires the undivided attention of authorities. Resistance to reforms against child marriages mainly comes from parents of brides/grooms. People’s insistence on following decades-old and conservative practices has become a unique feature of Pakistani society. Most parents are in favour of early marriages, and in some cases, such marriages are held to ensure that the girl’s inheritance stays within the family. Amid all this, girls suffer the most – from abuse and violence to health issues caused by early pregnancies and a lack of care.
But these seemingly shocking preferences are also a result of the issues women face in society. Sexual harassment of women at their homes is a common phenomenon that remains ignored. Most mothers – who themselves are a victim of a cycle of abuse and harassment – find it more appropriate to get their daughters married than to let them stay at home and remain vulnerable. For they are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. Any reforms taken without acknowledging these issues will not lead to any improvement, and all progress made to eliminate child marriages will remain stuck in reverse. Reforms should start at the grassroots level and must begin with challenging patriarchal norms that both men and women use to justify child marriages. Efforts should also be made to encourage women to build their identity and make marriage a part of their identity, not revolve their entire life around it. Schools should offer scholarships for girl students who drop out because parents prefer saving for their marriages over spending on their education.
The most important step, however, is to take strict steps against scholars and televangelists who irresponsibly use their platform to promote child marriages. We have ordinary men posing as learned scholars encouraging parents to accept the practice of early marriages. These videos – easily available on social media and video-sharing platforms – have millions of views, and their content remains unchallenged. The government cannot turn a blind eye to such preachers who ensure that women remain oppressed under patriarchy. There should be absolutely no leniency for people who promote such norms that have a negative effect on young women and girls.