The United Nations (UN) declared 2020-2030 a target decade to put an end to child marriages. Child marriage remains a serious issue of concern in Pakistan for stakeholders who have failed to explore the root causes of this menace that prevails in Pakistani society. One main reason behind child marriage laws being largely toothless in Pakistan lies in looking at the issue with a legal lens merely. Whereas, in reality, there are economic, socio-cultural, socio-legal as well as religious constraints ineffective implementation of existing laws and bringing new ones.
In Pakistani society, marriage is seen merely as a social construct, whereas, in reality, it is much more than that. It is a civic arrangement where two parties voluntarily and with all their consent assume a set of social responsibilities. The institution of the family is one of the vital components of the superstructure of a society.
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Article 16 of the ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948’ states: “that Men and women of full age, have the right to marry and found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution”. Although with the help of UNICEF and UNDP Funds and the state legislation, the issue of early age, the marriage got noticed by the people and the ratio of early age marriage is being reduced yet very slowly.
Pakistan is home to around 208 million people according to the results of the 2017 census where women comprise 49 percent of the total population. Unfortunately, almost half of the total population of Pakistan (women) is living in a country that ranked fourth among the worst countries for women to live in according to the 2019 report of the Women, Peace and Security Index. Pervasive gender disparity, sexual violence, early marriages, lack of access to basic health facilities for women, the mounting mortality rate during childbirth, the high illiteracy rate among women are a few of the various issues that women face in this country.
Girls are the most vulnerable population of this menace as it has a direct impact on their health and well-being. It impacts their education as well. It does have negative repercussions on boys, but girls are affected more since patriarchy has already marginalized them in so many other ways that the issue of child marriage just exacerbates their misery. The existence but non-compliance of child marriage laws depicts that there are many challenges that exist in Pakistan.
The loopholes in our system
Child Marriage Restraint Act (CMRA), 1929 largely remains toothless and ineffective in Pakistan due to many loopholes in it and due to looking at the issue in a merely legal context. Religious elements’ role cannot be denied in the feud of minimum age to get married. There is a clash in the age of the male and female children. As the CMRA states that a child is a person, if male, is under eighteen years of age, and if a female, is under sixteen years of age.
The Majority Act 1875 holds that every person domiciled in Pakistan would attain the age of majority at 18 but it excludes marriage, dower, divorce, adoption and religion or religious rites and usages from this provision. In effect, a person below 18 is not able to vote or enter into a commercial agreement but could enter into marriage, convert from his/her religion, or even divorce. This politicization of the age of consent in the case of marriage reveals the complexity of the issue.