Marriage or Punishment?

Marriage is an intimate union and socially or ritually recognized partnership between men and women. It is an institution in which sexual and interpersonal relationships are acknowledged, and a legal contract is recognized by the state, religious authorities, tribal groups and the local community. Marriage is valuable in itself, but its inherent orientation to the bearing and rearing of children contributes to its distinctive structure, including norms of monogamy and fidelity.
The minimum age for marriage with and without parental consent be set at 18 years, regardless of the gender of the individual involved. But child marriage is one of the common practices in the South Asian region and in Pakistan in particular. Young girls are married on the pretext of social, cultural and religious traditions and they are disadvantaged physically, educationally, psychologically, and economically in the process.

Child marriage is defined as one in which both or one of the persons in the couple is under the age of 18. Child marriage disproportionately and negatively affects girls who are more likely to be married as children than boys. Child marriages are not confined to South Asia as it has been practiced in most developing countries. According to an estimate, over 60 million girls and women are affected by child marriage globally. More or less South Asian countries have the same environment and factors such as poverty, illiteracy, backwardness and religious fundamentalism which are considered congenial for child marriages. Child marriage rates in South Asia are the second highest in the world, behind only those of West Africa. Nearly half (46 per cent) of young women in South Asia aged 20-24 in 2010 were married before they turned 18. Girls living in rural areas are victims of child marriage.
The prevalence of child marriage in Pakistan is higher among rural girls (37 per cent) than urban ones (21 per cent). Pakistani society has been deeply rooted in traditions and customs. Most of the traditions put emphasis on child marriage of females even without their consent. In such traditions, specific roles have been assigned to females where they are confined to their homes and are largely dependant on their male family members.

Some reasons behind child marriages are social constructions which instigate child marriage; the notion of ‘honour’ (izzat) appears to be the most important factor. There is usually a marked pressure on parents to marry their daughters off at an early age in order to lessen the risk of dishonour attached to sex without marriage. Another reason for the practice is that it strengthens male domination and reduces alternative opportunities for girls. To control a women’s sexuality is a common reason to marry girls off at a young age. A girl’s sexuality is perceived to be the property of her husband once she is married. The control of a girl’s sexuality is essential to protect the honour of her father, family and community. Other reason is that child marriage is often used as an instrument to perpetuate power relations and maintain gender-based control. It is generally believed that the younger girls can be easily tamed the way male elders want.
It becomes watta satta (exchange marriages) to maintain the balance of power between families by ensuring that their girls are exchanged in marriage for daughters-in-law.

Pakistan is a patriarchal society in which females are given mostly domestic duties to perform, girls are confined to the home which forces them to leave their education and other opportunities. In poor families, parents do not have the resources to send their girls to school so they marry their daughters off as early as possible to be relieved from the responsibility. They don’t see a future for them beyond sending them to their husband’s house. So, one pronounced contributing factor for child marriage is poverty.

To resolve this issue amend the existing laws to ban the marriage of any individuals under the age of 18 and impose tough penalties and punishment for those who act in contravention. Ensure that all child births should be registered immediately after the birth takes place and data should be computerized to verify the age of any individual. Make a mechanism to register all marriages without fail. Ratify international human rights instruments to discourage menaces such as child marriage and child labour and the government should show commitment with the international community.
The government should provide training to officials and other stakeholders to make people aware of the provisions of national law at primary and middle schools run by the government or NGOs and attendance of students should be ensured. Teachers should report school drop-outs to the authorities on a regular basis. The government and NGOs should open girls’ schools with female staff as many parents are not comfortable with co-education. Provide economic incentives for parents or guardians to send their girls to school. These incentives immediately attract them and may help delay marriages. Include leaders, sports heroes, celebrities and reputed social workers to highlight the negative effects of child marriage. They should promote the use of contraceptive and make aware people about reproductive health matters for family planning. Parents should be given adequate pre- and postnatal health care education for the child.

Sidra Zafar

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