Muslim clerics resist Pakistan’s efforts to end child marriage

May 16

LAHORE, Pakistan — When police raided a marriage ceremony in Karachi on Wednesday (May 14) and found a 46-year-old groom about to marry his 14-year-old bride, the wedding didn’t come as a shock to most here in this conservative Muslim country — the raid did.

The bride told police her marriage had been consensual, police officials said. Her age was listed as 18 on the marriage certificate.

Marrying off girls as young as 10 is still a widespread practice in Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere in Asia and Africa, despite the prohibition of child marriage in some existing national and provincial laws. Between 2000 and 2010, about 24.4 million women between the ages of 20 and 24 were married before the age of 18, according to a report by the United Nations Population Fund.

Now some lawmakers in Pakistan are hoping to end the practice by introducing harsher punishments for clerics, guardians and spouses involved in arranging child marriages across the country. The province of Sindh, whose capital is Karachi, outlawed the practice in late April — hence the raid.

The Child Marriage Restraint Bill 2014 introduced in the National Assembly in March proposes amending a 1929 law by making involvement in a child marriage a recognizable offense and creating stricter punishments, including two-year prison sentences or fines of up to $1,000.

It’s been a long time coming, say supporters.

“It’s time that we stand up for our women,” said Marvi Memon, a lawmaker and a sponsor of the bill. “I have seen child rights violated in my constituency and around the country — in every single province.”

Still, Memon and other bill supporters are facing stiff resistance from opponents to the bill, such as the Council of Islamic Ideology, a body charged with advising the government on Islamic law.

In March, the council ruled that laws related to the minimum age of marriage were against the teachings of the Quran and that children of any age could get married if they had reached puberty. They argue that the Prophet Muhammad took underage wives.

“Parliament should not legislate laws which are against the teachings of the Quran and Sunnah,” said Maulana Muhammad Khan Shirani, the council’s chairman, referring to the Muslim holy book and oral traditions of the Prophet Muhammad.

But advocates of the law say it is necessary to set age limits because poorer families can’t support all their children; in Muslim culture, the bride joins the groom’s family and the husband becomes responsible for her.

“Persistent constraints and deprivations that prevent many of the world’s women from achieving their potential have huge consequences for individuals, families, communities and nations,” said Omer Aftab, chief executive officer of the Women’s Empowerment Group, an independent organization in Lahore.

“Child marriage remains pervasive in developing economies like ours, with one in three girls wedded before 18 and one in nine before 15,” he added.

The United Nations Human Rights Council estimates that more than 140 million girls will be married before their 18th birthdays over the next decade and that almost 50 percent of these child brides are in South Asia. Child marriage can have devastating consequences for these women.

“Research gives us reason to believe that early marriage comes with a 41 percent increased risk of mental disorder,” said Aftab. “It is a major psychological trauma and should be considered as no less.”

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