Descending into the caves

Combatting child marriage with in an effective legal system is essential to progess.

By Isheta Salgaocar

Few words could be more paradoxical when strung together than child and marriage. The only competitor would perhaps, be child bride.

International Women’s Day is celebrated each year on March 8 across the world. It’s not a hallmark holiday, there are no cards or flowers or special sales on candy. The United Nations, however, does a commemorative meeting with stalwarts from around the globe. This year included former United States Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham-Clinton, who touched on several important topics including that of child marriage. “We must ensure that we bring an end to gender based violence and to early and forced marriage,” she said.

Five days later, Pakistan’s top religious body stated that disallowing child marriage is not in keeping with Islam and the Sharia law and demanded that the government change its law as stated in the Prohibition of Child Marriages. Tahir Ashrafi, a member of the Council of Islamic Ideology stated that there is no specific age limit for marriage in sharia and that an individual can marry when he or she reaches puberty and puberty cannot be defined by age. Furthermore, family members can decide if the child had reached puberty or not.

If a girl achieves puberty earlier than 18, is that the only reason for her to be married off? Without even making the romantic love argument for marriage, is being in estrus the only requirement for a girl to be a bride?

It is not that child marriage concerns girls more than boys, but that the incidence of child brides is on the higher side. As per UNICEF frames child marriage through a human rights perspective as a crime against women and children. Furthermore, child marriage disproportionately affects girls because of their sex and despite facially neutral laws, women and girls are often de facto unequal before the law.

While some schools in Pakistan are introducing sex education in classrooms, others do not even allow girls to attend. Of the ones that do permit female students, a large section could potentially not finish school because they will be married off. This is a dark cave that we are entering, one from which you may never see light.

About one fourth of all Pakistan’s girls find themselves in unions before the age of 18. But it isn’t just Pakistan. India leads the race with the most child marriages (and this could be helped by its gargantuan population) with about 47 per cent of all girls married before they turn 18. In Bangladesh, 64per cent of all women aged 20–24 were married before the age of 18 as per a recent study. Nepal has a high incidence of child marriage of over 75 per cent of the female population. Interestingly, Myanmar as a new democracy is working towards increasing the legal age of women to be married from 16 to 18. Sri Lanka, on the other hand, has a fairly lower incidence of child marriage. India, Nepal and Sri Lanka are among the nations which have legal systems and civil codes which address issues like child marriage making prohibition harder, particularly through religious provisions under the civil code.

Coincidentally, South Asian nations are also among those that have infant mortality rates higher than the worldwide average. Adult mothers are more likely to be vaccinated and vaccinate their babies, and survive child birth. Being married at a younger age leaves girls more susceptible to disease particularly sexually transmitted diseases, due to a variety of reasons including lack of education. Moreover girls married at younger ages are less likely to achieve social or economic mobility, and could be caught in a cycle of poverty and progress of society overall will decline.

And even if every other statistic doesn’t move you I leave you with this: If Pakistan were to go ahead and incorporate the CII suggestions and amend their laws, pedophilia would no longer be condemned, as it would be protected by law.

Read the complete report on child marriage conducted by UNICEF here.

1 Comment

  1. The issue is more complex than it looks. The council said they “can” be married, not that they “must” be married. People under the age of 18 can be legally married in the United States as long as they have parental consent, and I am sure many do. Legal pedophilia then, is everywhere.

    On the other hand, Islam clearly states that unless the guy and the girl explicitly agree to the marriage and openly proclaim it, it is not considered marriage. So while the reasoning of Council of Islamic Ideology in Pakistan can be argued, the explanation of this issue and argument for and against it cannot be made in the way it has been made here.

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