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Children have rights

Child marriage is a deeply entrenched societal issue that continues to plague several nations worldwide, notably Pakistan. This practice not only infringes on the fundamental rights of children but also perpetuates gender inequity and impedes social development.

This makes it all the more important to highlight the extent and consequences of child marriages in Pakistan, with particular emphasis on the legal framework, societal norms, and cultural factors that give rise to this practice, and ultimately its impact on children’s rights, education, and gender equality.

Child marriage remains widespread in many regions of Pakistan, especially within rural areas where customary practices and societal norms are stringent. According to a Unicef report published in 2018, Pakistan has one of the greatest incidences of child marriage in the world, with over 38 per cent of girls marrying before reaching the age of 18. More importantly, based on the WHO 2019 report, adolescent mothers (aged 10–19 years) are more likely to succumb to eclampsia, puerperal endometritis, and systemic infections than women aged 21–25 years, and their newborns are more likely to suffer from premature birth, low birth weight, and acute neonatal conditions.

Pakistan has a few legislative measures to tackle the scourge of child marriage. According to the definition of child under the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), a child is anybody under the age of 18. The legal age for marriage in Pakistan is 18 for males and 16 for females (Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929, and Muslim Family Laws Ordinance, 1961). However, due to inadequate implementation and an overall lack of awareness among citizens, this law often goes unnoticed.

The legal age for marriage also varies across Pakistan’s provinces. In that regard, the Sindh Child Marriages Restraint Act of 2013 makes marriage lawful at the age of 18 for both genders, which makes Sindh the only province in Pakistan to do so; however, the legal age in the rest of the country remains 16 years. The dearth of a coherent legal framework correlates to the country’s continued practice of underage marriages. Pakistan’s international commitments provide greater legal and policy advice. Pakistan has ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and has nationally co-opted the Sustainable Development Goals that pledge to eliminate child marriages by 2030.

In Pakistan, child marriage has serious ramifications for children’s rights and well-being. Young girls are frequently badgered and harassed into dropping out of school to fulfil their duties as brides and mothers, denying children the right to an education, which is a fundamental right enshrined in Pakistan’s constitution. Article 25 of the constitution establishes the equality of citizens and binds the state to provide free and compulsory education to all children aged 5 to 16 years old.

This practice, according to Statista 2020 data on the literacy rate in Pakistan, produces a cycle of illiteracy and restricts prospects for younger females; less than 48 per cent of women in the nation are literate, maintaining gender inequality. The constitution guarantees the eradication of all types of exploitation, the protection of the law as an intrinsic right of every citizen, and the enactment of particular provisions for protecting women and children as needed. Conversely, it appears that Pakistan continues to fail and not fully uphold and comply with both its constitutional and international obligations.

Child marriages are a reflection of the country’s socioeconomic and cultural norms. The patriarchal nature of Pakistani society, with male dominance widespread, contributes significantly to the continuation of this adverse practice. Poverty, illiteracy, and limited economic opportunities are unambiguously contributing variables to the prevalence of underage marriages.

The monthly average income of Pakistani households is Rs41,545, according to CIEC Data 2020. As a consequence, families see child marriage as a way to alleviate their financial burden. The Global Database on Violence against Women reports that more than 29 per cent of child brides in Pakistan endure sexual, emotional, and domestic violence, as well as marital rape, because they are commonly married to older males with significant control and authority over them. According to the WHO, approximately 13,000 young individuals committed suicide in Pakistan in 2016, with 2,837 of them being adolescent brides.

Young marriages have an adverse impact on education, not just for young brides but also for society as a whole. Young women’s educational aspirations are abruptly curtailed when they are married off at a young age, depriving them of the opportunity to reach their full potential. This not only impedes their growth as individuals but also hinders the country’s economic and social advancement.

Education, as history has shown, is one of the most potent tools for reducing poverty and inequality since it lays the framework for long-term positive economic growth. As per the European Parliament, educated women are more likely to contribute positively to society by ending the cycle of poverty and empowering future generations. Child marriage gives rise to gender inequality in Pakistan by facilitating the view that women are inferior to men and should be limited to traditional gender roles, particularly within rural areas. By denying women access to education and personal growth, society maintains a trend of gender discrimination. On top of that, child brides are routinely coerced into early pregnancies, which endangers their health and prolongs the poverty cycle.

To achieve gender equality, the primary causes of child marriage must be addressed, and young girls must be allowed to reach their full potential, as they are our future. If we cannot always build the future for them, we can at least build and prepare them for the future, which is only feasible if their fundamental freedoms are protected. Child marriage persists as an acute socio-legal issue in Pakistan that requires immediate action. The prevalence of this practice is determined by cultural norms, societal expectations, and financial constraints.

A comprehensive strategy for resolving this issue is necessary, encompassing raising awareness, legislative reforms, emphasis on education, and encouraging young ladies for their chosen future prospects. Only by prioritizing child rights, education, and gender equality can Pakistan begin to take meaningful strides towards eradicating child marriage and establishing a more inclusive and affluent society.

Muhammad Siddique Ali Pirzada, "Children have rights," The News. 2023-11-12.
Keywords: Social sciences , Social development , Child marriages , Education , Violence , Pakistan , CIEC