A Pakistani policeman (center, in uniform) escorts relatives of an underage girl and boy during a wedding ceremony in Karachi in October 2008. Police arrested the pair of fathers and a marriage registrar amid claims that a four-year-old girl and seven-year-old boy were being married. The arrested men said the wedding was meant to end a feud between the two families. (Rizwan Tabassum/AFP/Getty Images)

Pakistan’s Upper House Calls to Raise Minimum Age for Marriage

Despite religious opposition, bill is expected to pass in National Assembly

[Islamabad] In a historic move, Pakistan’s senate has unanimously passed a bill seeking to set the minimum age for marriage at 18.

Prompted by a 2017 report by the United Nations Children’s Fund (also known as UNICEF) stating that 21 percent of Pakistanis get married before turning 18, Sen. Sherry Rehman, a former ambassador to the United States, introduced the bill, emphasizing that Muslim countries such as Oman, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates had already set 18 as the minimum age.

“Every 20 minutes, a Pakistani woman dies from childbirth or complications in pregnancy. This is to a great degree attributable to a large number of women, especially under-age girls, having little power or agency over their bodies,” she told the senate on April 29. “Early pregnancies are claiming lives. We have to act to stop it.”

Senators from religious parties including Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam and Jamaat-e-Islami opposed the bill, citing Islamic values. They accused Rehman of promoting western culture in Pakistan.

Sen. Abdul Ghafoor Haideri of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam strongly opposed the bill, arguing that complicated pregnancies were not tied to age, but to poor healthcare.

“Islam allows marriage after puberty. I suggest the bill be sent to the Council of Islamic Ideology for further consideration,” he said.

The bill now awaits debate in Pakistan’s National Assembly, where it is likely to pass.

Speaking to The Media Line by phone, Rehman said passage in the senate was a great achievement that would put an end to underage marriages.

“Underage marriages have been a curse,” she said. “I’m grateful to all of my colleagues who joined forces to get the Child Marriage Restraint Bill passed by the senate. The bill passed all phases and defines childhood [until] age 18. Marriages under that age will be criminalized.”

Rehman called it the beginning of new era in Pakistan, noting that once the bill becomes law, underage marriage could lead to imprisonment of up to three years, a fine of at least 100,000 Pakistani rupees (a little more than $700), or both.

According to the 2017 UNICEF report, 3% of Pakistani girls married before the age of 15, and with 1.9 million girls under the age of 18 married, Pakistan had the sixth highest number of child brides in the world.

Pakistan has committed to eliminate child, early and forced marriages by 2030 in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals relating to the issue.

Human rights groups hailed the move by Pakistan’s senate, calling it a step in the right direction towards putting an end to underage marriages. Still, Manizeh Bano, executive director of the NGO Sahil, which fights against child sexual abuse in Pakistan, told The Media Line that more was needed.

“Apart from legislation, we also need to launch awareness programs nationwide to let the parents know the dark side of underage marriage,” Bano said.

Pakistan ratified UNICEF’s Convention on the Rights of the Child – which sets a minimum age of marriage to 18 – in 1990. In 1996, it ratified the UN’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which obligates states to ensure free and full consent to marriage.

Nevertheless, underage marriages have continued in Pakistan except in the southeastern province of Sindh, where the minimum age is already 18 years.

Two years ago, Sen. Sehar Kamran introduced the Child Marriage Restraint Bill, and it was passed in committee. However, it was then referred to the Council of Islamic Ideology, which ruled that marriages can be performed at any age.

Zarina Gul, 21, who was 15 years old when she was forced to marry a 32-year-old man, praised the senate for taking steps to end underage marriage.

“You can imagine the stress, suffering, pain and agony I have been faced with,” Gul, who works as a housemaid, told The Media Line. “I gave birth to a baby girl who died within four hours. I myself had to spend weeks in the hospital. Underage marriages are a curse. It has to be stopped.”

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