PAKChildMarriage2019LAHORE, Pakistan —Hameeda, 15, was married to Saqib, 30, in a small ceremony in a small village in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region of northern Pakistan.

Hameeda, who only had recently stopped playing house with her dolls, is now running a household of her own and is on her way to become a mother.

“My husband works as a driver in United Arab Emirates while I stay in the village with my in-laws – he visits during Eid holidays only," she said, referring to annual Muslim holidays that follow the fasting month of Ramadan.

"One day I will also visit him by taking an airplane,” she added, her face lighting up.

Hameeda is one of more than a million child brides in Pakistan in spite of laws that make it illegal for girls to marry before the age of 16. A new bill in parliament is seeking to raise the age to 18. It faces opposition by religious conservatives. But child advocates say something has to be done.

“Child marriage is one of the worst human rights violations," said Samar Minallah Khan, an independent anthropologist and child rights advocate based in Islamabad. "It puts an end to a child's right to freedom, education and to play – it takes away their childhood. They cannot be children anymore.”

Pakistan has one of the highest rates of child marriage of any country in the world, sixth in the world, according to UNICEF, with an estimated 1,909,000 children currently married. In Pakistan, 21 percent of girls are married off before their 18th birthday, 3 percent before the age of 15.
Meanwhile, most marriages with child brides involve men three to four times older than them.

“Parents want to get rid of their young girls as soon as they reach puberty, the mindset is that they are considered to be a burden," said Rubina Saigol, a child advocate in Lahore. "(With the marriage), the girl is property of another home and belongs there (and therefore has to be taken care of there).”

“It is rooted in economic reasons, with this the idea is the girl is only an entity not a human being with any human or property rights," she added. "The son, however, is considered the breadwinner, girl just a liability.”

Last month, a seven-year-old girl was given in marriage to a 28-year-old man in a village in Punjab in central Pakistan. The police raided the ceremony and arrested the bridegroom. In another case, a 60-year-old man was arrested as he was about to marry a 12 year-old girl in Sadiqabad in southern Pakistan in June. And a 45-year-old man married a 10-year-old girl in Sindh in southern Pakistan in May. He was arrested.

The Marriage Act sets the minimum age for a girl to marry in Pakistan is 16 – it is 18 for boys – but advocates say the age must be raised – and the law better enforced. Pakistan is also a signatory to international agreements such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child that require enforcement of laws to prevent child marriage.

In May, the ruling party Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf introduced a bill in the legislature to amend the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929 to set the marriageable age for girls at 18. It would set a fine and possible imprisonment for the groom and those involved in facilitating the marriage such as parents, marriage brokers and religious authorities that marry the couple.

Meanwhile, a number of lawmakers, including government ministers, have balked.

“I will never support any legislation that is against the tenants of Islam," said Minister for Parliamentary Affairs Ali Muhammad Khan. "Pakistan is an Islamic country and no such law can be passed here even if it costs me my ministry or my seat (in parliament).”

Like with all previous attempts to amend the marriageable age girls, Pakistan’s Council of Islamic Ideology warned that any legislation to ban child marriage would lead to “complications.” It asked instead for an awareness campaign to discourage the trend.

Even so, some officials expressed disappointment.

“What hopes can one really attribute to a society (where) 50 elected representative and even ministers actually voted for underage marriage? Should be enough to give sleepless,” Fawad Chaudhry, minister of science and technology tweeted.

Advocates say the issue is never been a priority and the new administration of Imran Khan pays only lip service to it.

“The current government of Imran Khan is an extremely conservative right wing one, they have no interest or will (to do anything) in issues like child marriages," said Saigol. "They are focused on other things and this is not a priority for them. Every other day we hear of underage girls being married or Hindu girls’ abduction (for marriage) but it doesn’t bother the government much.”

Hameeda, meanwhile, waits for her child to be born. She says her biggest problem is that she doesn't have that much to do, and being in her second trimester is limiting. She recounts how she once would have liked to have been a school teacher where she could teach girls in her village but marriage ended that dream.

“I would have made a difference for my community,” she said.

Now, she says the child will at least reduce her boredom.

“Since my husband is away most of the time, I feel my child will be a good distraction for me,” she said.

Photo: Screenshot of Safia Badal, now 19, and her famliy. She was married at the age of 13-years-old and has two children. She said in an interview of Voice of America that a girl should be married when she is mentally mature.
Credit: Courtesy of Voice of America's official YouTube channel. (07/28/19)

Story/photo published date: 08/29/19
A version of this story was published in The Washington Times.
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