By Manizeh Bano, Executive Director, Sahil
Child marriage often leads to a lifetime of disadvantage and deprivation for the developing mind and body of the girl child. The resultant biological, psychological, and social impacts of child marriages have a devastating impact on the child's development. The phenomenon also affects the society as a whole ; by impeding economic growth due to reduced workforce participation, perpetuating cycles of poverty, reinforcing gender inequalities, increasing healthcare costs, and hindering overall societal development.
In Pakistan, the law specifies that the minimum age for girls to marry is 16 years, while for boys, it is 18 years (except in Sindh province, where the minimum age for girls to marry is also 18 years). Still, early marriage is common in Pakistan
The prevalence of early marriages can be attributed to several factors - , traditional and cultural norms promote and perpetuate it, while girls having limited access to education prevents them from understanding their rights. Poverty and the practice of keeping girls from forming relationships outside the family also increase the vulnerability of girls to be married early.
Traditional and customary practices in the country also perpetuate child marriage. For instance, girls might be given away in marriage to settle disputes or as blood money for a murder, practices known as Vanni and Swara, respectively. Similarly, the practice of Sung Chatti involves committing an unborn child to marriage, and Vatta Satta ‘bride exchange’ involves the simultaneous marriage of a brother-sister pair from two households. Despite these practices prohibited by the Pakistan Penal Code 1860, (Section 310 A), which imposes penalties for these practices - the traditions continue.
Notably, many child marriage cases involve abduction. The abduction is often part of internal trafficking or may even involve cases of forced conversions. Obtaining details about such cases can be challenging. Some cases are brought to light by the media, which then delineates whether the marriage was due to forced conversion or trafficking.
Sahil, a non-profit organisation working to protect children's rights in Pakistan collects data from 85 newspapers across the country everyday. This data is published in ‘Sahil Cruel Numbers’, an annual report focusing on child sexual abuse cases, abductions, missing children, and child marriages. Sahil considers child marriages to be a form of child sexual abuse. This data analysis delves into various aspects, including gender, age, types of crimes, locations, duration of the abuse, and information about perpetrators. Additionally, it covers geographic areas of incidence such as provinces, districts, and maps the urban-rural divide, identifying the districts where girls are most vulnerable. With the support of Sahil these cases are officially documented with the police, likely to ensure that victimized families have the opportunity to access free legal aid and support by contacting police stations. The registration process aims to facilitate access to legal assistance for these families.
Over the last 5 years, Sahil has reported on more than 450 cases of child marriages. The girls involved in these marriages are usually between 11 to 15 years of age, while the number of boys involved are considerably lower. This shows that the girls are often married to older men. The data also reveals that more than 70% of these cases are reported from rural areas, indicating that poverty and lack of education are significant contributing factors.
Moreover, the majority of child marriage cases are reported across the Sindh province, spanning 22 districts. The second-highest number of reports comes from the Punjab province, spanning 14 districts. Both of these regions are known to be deeply rooted in traditional and cultural norms. Insufficient educational infrastructure and a lack of awareness about rights and laws have contributed to the persistence of attitudes and beliefs supporting child marriages and tolerating abuse, hindering significant change. This lack of awareness was evident during one of Sahil's training sessions on child marriages in local communities, where it was disheartening to witness a severe beating of a young fourteen-year-old girl by her in-laws.
However, targeted programs and interventions spearheaded by Sahil, such as community training and the establishment of local child protection committees, showcased a potential solution. By empowering these committees, a proactive stance was taken in safeguarding children, even resulting in the prevention of a child marriage. The success of these measures demonstrated the potential for change in confronting and preventing such harmful practices despite their prevalence and social acceptance.
Sahil’s work and data demonstrate that child marriage is a complex issue with multiple deep-rooted causes. It is important to address these root causes which include poverty, lack of education, and traditional and cultural norms. It is also important to empower girls and women through education and skill development.