Pakistan Reader# 197, 8 September 2021
Forced marriage with underage girls from minority communities is another challenge for Pakistan.Apoorva Sudhakar
In February 2021, MNA Maulana Salahuddin Ayubi from Balochistan married a 14-year-old girl from Chitral, garnering widespread but short-lived criticism from rights organisations and on social media. Though a probe was launched into the development, the discussion the issue that an underage girl was subjected to child marriage lost momentum, signalling that such instances were not unusual.
Several media reports quote UNICEF findings which indicate that in Pakistan, 21 per cent of girls married before they are 18 years of age and three per cent before they are 15. With an estimated 1,909,000 child brides, Pakistan ranks sixth among countries with the highest number of child brides.
Practices of child marriage in Pakistan
An article in The Nation cites the 2017 demographic and health survey (DHS) which revealed that 9.5 per cent women were married before they turned 18. This figure stood at 43.1 per cent in Sindh and 29.9 per cent in Punjab. Meanwhile, an activist from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa estimates that men pay anything between Rs 500,000 to Rs 2,000,000 to marry underage girls in the merged tribal districts and others estimate that in Chitral alone, underage girls would be sold off for Rs 2.5 million for marriage. On the other hand, the 2017 UNICEF State of the World’s Children report suggests that five per cent of boys in the country are married before 18.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) annual report, State of Human Rights in 2018, lists out various practices of child marriage across Pakistan. First, the swara practice which is common in Pashtun areas; in this, underage girls are married to those in different clans to resolve a tribal feud or pay off a debt. Second, the vani practice wherein underage girls are married to punish the crimes of her male relatives; the decision regarding this is usually taken by a jirga. Third, the watta satta practice which is similar to a barter system; in some cases, under the watta satta, a brother and sister from a family are married to their counterparts from another family. Activist Mukhtaran Mai opines that in such practices, families give away young girls as if they are animals, in exchange for money. An opinion in Daily Times also highlights the addo baddo practice wherein 34 per cent of girls aged around 16 years are married to a first cousin from the father’s family.
Forced marriage with underage girls from minority communities is another challenge for Pakistan. The HRCP report attributes this to the lack of strict enforcement of laws and a lackadaisical state response. As latest as August 2021, Pakistan Today reported that a Christian couple had raised allegations that their 14-year-old daughter had been kidnapped, forcibly converted and married to a Muslim boy. The Forced Marriage Unit of the UK says that in 2017, Pakistan accounted for 439 cases of child forced marriage; the highest among four ‘focused’ countries, followed by Bangladesh, Somalia and India.
Drivers of child marriage
First, child marriage as an escape from poverty. The HRCP report cites a study conducted in seven communities in KP, by a Peshawar-based organisation, which highlights that the main driver of child marriages was poverty and the families’ perception that girls were burdens and not contributing to the income of a household.; this forces families to settle for the abovementioned amounts.
Second, child marriages are fuelled by the entrenched patriarchy wherein girls who marry late are shamed and on the other hand, fear of rape and harassment forces parents to get the girls married to supposedly keep up the family’s honour.
Third, lack of legislative enforcement. As per the Child Marriage Restraint Act 1929, the minimum legal age of marriage for girls is 16 years and for boys, 18 years. Only Sindh, under the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act, passed in 2014, had increased the age for girls to 18 and also made child marriage a punishable act. However, news opinions quote statistics revealing that 72 per cent girls and 25 per cent boys in Sindh are subjected to child marriages. The highest rate of child marriage occurred in the tribal districts wherein over 90 per cent girls are subjected to it, followed by Balochistan and Punjab wherein 66 per cent girls and 22 per cent boys are married off before the legal age.
Despite the above challenges, Pakistan commits itself to achieve target 5.3 of the Sustainable Development Goals which focuses on the elimination of child, early, and forced marriage by 2030. The HRCP recommends that child marriages can be curbed through stricter enforcement of laws, setting the legal age at 18 and developing holistic policies for children.
Mehmil Khalid Kunwar, “Child marriage yet to be curbed,” The Nation, 17 July 2021
Adnan Ali, “Underage brides in Chitral,” The Nation, 19 March 2021
Sania Arif, “Increasing number of child marriages in Pakistan,” The Nation, 30 April 2021
“State of Human Rights in 2018,” Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, March 2019
Shazia Mehboob, “Ending early marriage,” The News International, 11 October 2021
Salman Ali, “Let’s end Child Marriages!,” Daily Times, 16 November 2019
Shagufta Gul, “Child Marriage Blurred lines between blind faith and Morality,” Daily Times, 7 September 2021
Sania Arif, “Another minor Christian girl victimised,” Pakistan Today, 6 September 2021
Wahajat Ali Malik, “Yes, I do,” The News International, 30 March 2021