Pakistan continues to paint a dismal picture with regards to the rights of children, from the conditions of its juvenile prison population to the rampant, illegal practice of child marriage.
Samad Ali, executive director of Legal Awareness Watch (LAW), said according to their estimates, there are about 1.5 million children living on the country’s streets who are often subjected to violence, sexual abuse, forced labour or illegal drug use.
A report submitted to the Supreme Court by the federal ombudsman in April stated that 1,204 women and 1,248 juveniles had been imprisoned in 104 prisons of the country.
In April-June this year, LAW also attempted to ascertain the population of juveniles behind bars across Punjab and Sindh. Perusing details from 10 prisons — five in each province — it found that 81 juveniles had been detained across 10 prisons of Punjab and Sindh without legal assistance.
Similarly, underage marriage remains a global problem. UNICEF estimates that 11% of women worldwide were married before reaching the age of 15.
Irum Fatima, a provincial coordinator at Bedari, a rights’ organisation, stated that every third girl in Pakistan is a victim of child marriage. Terming it ‘modern slavery’, she said child marriage is a complex issue fueled and sustained by deep structural issues such as poverty, lack of education, cultural practices and gender inequalities.
According to UNICEF, Pakistan has the sixth highest number of absolute child brides in the world — 1,909,000. The median age of marriage is the lowest in rural areas and in Gilgit-Baltistan.
A number of major issues drive child marriage in Pakistan, such as traditional customs of ‘Swara’ wherein girls are married off to resolve disputes or debt; ‘Watta satta’, which is a kind of bartering for brides; and ‘Paitlikkhi’, which is the marrying of girls before they are born or at a very young age.
Other reasons include deeply entrenched patriarchal norms which favour early marriages of girls as per traditions, family practices of marriages among families or tribes, religious beliefs such as those among some conservative Muslims that girls should be married off after attaining puberty, and lack of education as studies show that each year of additional secondary education reduces the risk of child marriage by 3.4% in Pakistan.
Commitments and laws
Pakistan has committed to eliminate child, early and forced marriages by 2030 in line with Goal 5.3 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
Pakistan also ratified the Convention of the Rights of Child in 1990, which sets the minimum age of marriage at 18, as well as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1996, which obligates states to ensure free and full consent to marriage. However, these commitments are subject to the laws of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.
Representatives of the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), including Pakistan, also asserted the Kathmandu Call to Action to End Child Marriage in Asia in 2014. As part of its commitment, Pakistan will ensure access to legal remedies for child brides and establish a uniform minimum legal age of marriage of 18.
The country Pakistan is also a member of the South Asian Initiative to End Violence Against Children (SAIEVAC), which adopted a regional action plan to end child marriage from 2015-2018.
Nationally, several alliances have been active in advocating for legal reform at the provincial and federal level. Pakistan’s 2017-2025 National Education Policy focuses on eliminating gender disparity in education and encouraging families to send girls to school.
As for the country’s laws, there are varying sets of rules. Under the Child Marriage Restraint Act 1929, the minimum legal age of marriage is 16 years for girls and 18 years for boys.
At the provincial level, in 2014 the Sindh Assembly unanimously adopted the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act, increasing the minimum age of marriage to 18 years for both boys and girls and making child marriage a punishable offence. A proposed similar nationwide bill was unfortunately struck down by Pakistan’s National Assembly in 2014. In Punjab, a law introducing harsher penalties for marriage under the age of 16 was also adopted. However, it did not increase the girls’ age of marriage to 18. In other provinces and the federal territory of Islamabad, the 1929 law is in effect.
Unfortunately, even where adequate legal measures are in place, such as in Sindh, child marriages continue under the garb of ‘religious practices’ and the punitive measures are seldom enforced.
Sidra Humayon, an Islamabad-based child rights activist, stated that from a South Asian perspective, Pakistan has good laws for the protection of women and children. “But the lack of or selected implementation of these laws benefits the culprits,” she said, explaining measures taken by police to favour the accused, such as pressuring of victims to reconcile and not arresting suspects. She also called for a national database so the police can keep a record of suspects and convicts to help trace accused in other cases.
Allama Iqbal Open University’s Dr Afshan Huma deplored that nearly 23 million children between the ages of five and 16 are out of school in Pakistan, in violation of Article 25-A of the Constitution which directs the state to provide free and compulsory education to every school-age child.
“Amazingly, we have laws in place, as well as policy provisions, but we do not have a law enforcement and policy implementation strategy,” she stated.
Child Rights’ Movement National Coordinator Mumtaz Gohar said education and child labour are interconnected. He explained that if the law is implemented under Article 25-A, every child will be enrolled in school which will in turn eliminate child labour from the country.
Gohar stressed on first establishing the right age of a child, as different laws stipulate various ages as per the country’s several child marriage laws.
“Though the present government’s manifesto included ending child abuse and working for child nutrition, it has failed to deliver its commitment after over two years in office,” he regretted.