Peshawar: The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government is all set to send draft of a proposed law on child marriages to the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) to make it “non-contradictory” to the injunctions of Islam, say official sources.
Wishing not to be named for sensittive nature of the information, the officials of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Social Welfare Department told News Lens Pakistan that the provincial law department had said that the lawmakers at the provincial legislature had some reservations over the draft of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Child Marriages Restraint Act, 2014.
“The proposed law has been sent to the Law Department for vetting, which would be sent to the CII in order to seek its guidance on the minimum age limit for girls,” they said.
The CII in its 19th meeting held last year gave a ruling that laws related to minimum age of marriage were “un-Islamic” and that children of any age could get married if they attain puberty. The CII noted that the laws related to marriage too were unfair and there cannot be any age of marriage.
However, civil society members expressed their reservation over the argument. “It is not just the matter of puberty,” said Qamar Naseem, Program Coordinator of Blue Veins, a non-governmental organization working for the women and child rights. “The marriage has great implications for child wives.”
Health workers say child wives fall ill and die during childbirth which is also one of the reasons of the highest maternal mortality rate in the country. Also, the infants born to the child mothers are often feeble. The marital lives remain stressed as child wives lack happiness due to a number of engagements they are not ready for.
Muhammad Ijaz Khan, Deputy Chief of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Child Protection and Welfare Commission said that the provincial government had formed a working group to look into the legal complexities of the law.
The working group, he said, after meetings with religious scholars, legal experts and civil society members drafted a law which was later sent to the Law Department for vetting.
In the proposed law, the minimum age limit for the girl is 18 years. Currently, under a federal law—Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929, a “child” is defined as a person under the age of 18 for boys and 16 for girls.
After the 18th constitutional amendment the provinces were given the right to introduce their own legislation on a number of issues. Taking the lead, the Sindh government, in April 2014 passed a bill which prohibits child marriages and made it mandatory that the age of both bride and bridegroom shall not be less than 18 years. Punjab government has also passed a resolution against child marriages and plan to table the bill on child marriages in next month.
Besides age specification, unlike the federal law which provides that anybody found involved in violating this law shall be liable to imprisonment for one month coupled with 1,000 rupees fine, the proposed law envisages imprisonment not less than three years and Rs 45,000 fine.
“The nikah registrar, under the proposed law, shall be bound to register nikah of only those couples who have valid national identity card and the attested copies of the identity card are required to be attached with the nikah form,” he added.
Qamar Naseem said that instead of describing the act of marriage below the age of 18 as illegal, the new law focused on penalties. “The under-age marriage will remain valid even if an underage couple is condemned by the court of law,” he argued.
Naseem said in many Islamic states of the world the minimum age of girl child for marriage was 18. “Pakistan will not be the lone Islamic state,” he said.
Pakistan presents a bleak picture vis-a-vis child marriages. According to Society for Protection of the Rights of the Child (SPARC), a non-governmental organization, 24 percent of women in the country were married before the age of 18 years in the country between 2000 and 2010 with seven percent married before they reached the age of 15 years.
Other estimates, according to the organization, put the figure at around 30 percent of the marriages in Pakistan fall under the child marriage category with the highest prevalence in the Sindh province.
The Unicef, in its “State of the World’s Children Report 2014” has said that seven percent of girls in Pakistan are married while under the age of 15.
Qamar recalled the proceedings of a presentation made before the lawmakers of the Khyber Pakthunkhwa Assembly regarding the proposed law on underage marriages. “Astonishingly enough, the politico-religious parties like Jamiat Ulema Islam-Fazl appeared to be ready to discuss the law but the members from the treasury benches opposed it and termed it violative of the Islamic law,” he said.
He also expressed reservations over the consultation process of the Provincial Child Welfare and Protection Commission regarding the issue. Despite the fact that the civil society time and again approached the commission and extended offered its support, the officials at the commission paid no heed.
“The civil society of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa will reject any compromised bill on child marriages,” he warned. He said the government must design and implement effective, properly funded policies and clear legislation to end these practices forever and to protect anyone at risk.
Interestingly, the officials at the Child Protection and Welfare Commission were also supportive of the existing law. “Even the existing age limit provided in the federal law is acceptable, but penalties should be made strict and be implemented in the letter and spirit,” said Ijaz Khan.
Jahanzeb Khan, regional manager of SPARC, said that under the United Nations Convention which Pakistan had signed anybody below the age of 18 was considered to be a child and everybody marrying under the age of 18 is violative of the international law.
Munawar Farman, a former woman lawmaker of Awami National Party who submitted a private member bill in the previous government to halt child marriages said child marriage stole the innocence of thousands of girls and often subjected them to poverty, ignorance and poor health.
She says: “The problem with early marriages is that the bride is immature and innocent herself. If a girl is married off at an age when she herself should be playing with dolls, how she can handle a baby or go through delivery.”