12 and married

Published: November 20, 2014

An Indian child bride. PHOTO: AFP

The small private clinic was echoing with mixed voices – those of ear-piercing shrills and loud excitement. Waiting to see my doctor, I realised the commotion in the maternity section with nurses rushing through a storm of women – aunts and grandmothers waiting on news of a baby child.

Passing it on as regular routine at the clinic, I was alarmed when the doctor came out scolding the elderly woman in the group who was wailing, claiming the doctor did not do enough to save the child. The doctor told the waiting family,

“The poor girl would have died in labour. She was too young to produce a baby and time was running out. The baby was very weak and couldn’t survive.”

It turned out to be another struggle to convince male members to take the mother for proper postpartum medical treatment.

The mother turned out to be a 14-year-old meek child with sunken eyes and an anaemic body. Married at the age of 12 to a man old enough to be her father, Maria only knew of marriages as an exciting event of music, gifts and beautiful clothes. She was least aware of what happened when the guests left the house. Working as a domestic help in Karachi, Maria, 17, is a mother of two girls now, sole breadwinner and a silent witness to the hardships she continues to endure, both mental and physical during her five years of marriage.

Maria’s story is no different than one in every three girls who are married as child brides in Pakistan. She is one of the 42% of girls in the country (24% from rural areas and 18% for urban areas) who are married before their 18th birthday and amongst eight per cent of adolescent married women who already are mothers between the ages of 15-19. Maria is also a lucky survivor. Pregnant girls under the age of 15 have a five per cent higher chance of dying due to childbirth complications than women in their 20s.

The situation becomes more alarming as the world celebrates Universal Children’s Day today. The United Nations (UN) defines a child as a person below the age of 18, unless the relevant laws recognise an earlier age of majority. November 20th marks the day on which the UN Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of the Child in 1959 and the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989. Pakistan ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child on November 12, 1990. Signatories to the Convention, including Pakistan, agreed to provide children the right to survival; to develop to the fullest; to protection from harmful influences, abuse and exploitation; and to participate fully in family, cultural and social life. The four core underlying principles of the Convention are non-discrimination; devotion to the best interests of the child; the right to life, survival and development; and respect for the views of the child.

Twenty five years on, sadly, much is left to be desired. Globally, almost 39,000 girls become child brides every single day. A whopping 15 million girls under the age of 18 are married every year with little or no say in the matter with 70,000 girls dying in labour every year because their bodies aren’t ready for childbirth. One out of nine girls are married off before their 15th birthday, some as young as eight or nine in the developing world alone.

Sidra, aged 13, with her daughter who was born a year after her marriage. Photo: IRIN

In Pakistan, seemingly harmless and often garbed as cultural tradition, early marriages both of boys and especially girls tends to expose them to a far greater risk of experiencing dangerous complications in pregnancy and childbirth, becoming infected with HIV/AIDS and suffering domestic violence. Neither physically nor emotionally ready to become wives and mothers, early marriages also deprive these girls from education and economic opportunities, resulting in a vicious circle of abject poverty that they and their families are unable to come out of their entire lives.

Speaking of traditions, our socio-cultural dynamics cannot be ignored while analysing the issue. Time and time again, our governments have failed to curb the practice of early marriages especially when it is so deeply rooted in our culture. VaniSwara, Vulvar and Watta Satta are just some of the traditions that play a significant role in early marriages. The mind-set that considers girls an ‘amanat’(entrustment) that has to be handed over to her in-laws, the fear of insecurity and shame that an unmarried girl might bring on the family makes parents often try to get rid of this “huge responsibility” as soon as possible.

Another harsh reality is marrying off girls under the guise of dispute settlement. Girls are given in marriage to the men of wronged families to settle disputes or debts. These girls then become modern day slaves and pay for the ‘sins’ committed by their male relatives.

Misinterpretation of religion and Shariah is another factor that keeps majority of the population in the dark and encourages this malpractice. Earlier this year, the Council of Islamic Ideology’s (CII) ruled out laws related to minimum age of marriage as un-Islamic and declared that children of any age can get married under the supervision of their guardians, who are responsible for ensuring consummation of marriage as soon as children approach puberty.

There was some positive progress on the law front in April this year where the Sindh Assembly passed the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Bill 2013 prohibiting marriage of children below the age of 18 years. The Sindh Assembly became the first assembly in the country to pass a bill of this kind. However, the effectiveness of this bill is yet to be seen. Pakistan has no dearth of laws. All it needs to do is to ensure implementation for swift justice.

Interestingly, Pakistan has long been a bearer of the Child Marriages Restraint Act 1929 which has discouraged child marriages since the past 85 years when it was first enacted during the British Raj. The law was amended in 1981, where the marriageable age of a girl child was increased from 14 to 16 years while it was decreased from 21 to 18 for boys. Despite a punishable act by law, the Act could not gather momentum as it discriminates between marriageable age for boys and girls. Moreover, under the Act, when marriage involving young children takes place, the adults who agree to the marriage and arrange it, are supposed to be punished, but the marriage does not stand dissolved. The implementation of this law, like many others, remains non-existent to date.

Currently, marriageable age for a boy stands at 18 whereas it remains 16 for a girl (except in Sindh). The Civil Society points out a valid argument – if the legal age for a girl to vote, drive, maintain a bank account or apply for a National Identity Card (NIC) is 18, how can she be considered eligible to take up the responsibilities of a married life at 16?

A young couple with their two kids in Tando Allah Yar. Photo: File

Although poor law implementation has been a hindrance, let us not forget the structural flaws and lack of civic responsibility in our society that slows down the process of recognising and reporting incidences of early marriages.

There is a dire need to sensitise social actors at the grass-root level such as teachers, community and religious leaders, nikkah registrars, union councils and other district/local level public body representatives who are most often at the helm of local affairs. They can play a critical role in influencing parents and families to not marry off their ward(s) young and at the same time stop the act by intervening and reporting to concerned law enforcers. Simultaneously, it is upon the police personnel, lawyers and judges to take immediate action in implementing the law in letter and spirit without any discrimination or delay. The media, with its massive outreach plays an equally important role and needs to understand its own potential in reaching out to the masses with correct, impartial and non-judgmental information.

We, as a nation, need to stop putting the blame on the government every time and instead hold ourselves accountable for the change we inspire to see around us. And of course, educating the youth to enable them to understand, effectively respond to and claim their social wellbeing and their right to choose is detrimental for their growth as healthy and productive citizens.

The non-governmental sector in Pakistan has been keen on preventing child marriages across the country. In the past few years, we have witnessed several national and international NGOs working in most rural and far-fetched areas with community based organisations and in partnership with donor agencies and international governments. They have been working on various gender justice programmes, awareness and inclusion programmes, reproductive health rights services programmes, gender mainstreaming and governance programmes to empower women and strengthen local communities so that they are able to exercise their right to wellbeing; ActionAid PakistanPlan InternationalOxfamShirkatgahAahungSave the Children and Aurat Foundation are just a few examples.

Putting an end to child marriage in Pakistan requires a long-term and sustainable approach, and should be part of broader development efforts in the country. Expected change will take place within our communities when it is supported and catalysed by collective efforts from the public and private sector at local and national level. Just like across the globe, child marriage directly hinders the achievement of six out of eight Millennium Development Goals 2015 for Pakistan.

Simply put, Pakistan will not be able to fulfil its commitments to reduce poverty unless it tackles child marriage; until we achieve this, Maria and countless others like her will continue lamenting an unfulfilled childhood.

*Name has been changed to protect the privacy of the victim.


Huma Iqbal

A blogger who writes on social development, socio-political and economic issues in the region.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Maximus Decimus Meridius

    I don’t know what to say. This situation is Pakistans plight while in the west teenage pregnancy is on the rise with the youngest mother about 13 years of age. I hope our society reforms itself before they destroy the next generation.Recommend

  • Saad

    Meanwhile, in the west, teen pregnancy has become a social acceptable normRecommend

  • Katarina

    Teen pregnancy is not the norm in the west. Yes, it happens but it is rare. Especially if you talk about girls in their early teens (under 15) it is very exceptional. And girls in the west are not forced to marry by their parents to settle debts or otherwise.Recommend

  • Feya

    Unlike other commentators, I care very little for what goes on in the west (unless the ripples are felt our side of the pond that is). The dissemination of such knowledge is extremely pertinent, kudos to the writer for not only taking up the subject but handling it so well.
    Having said that, this topic feels incomplete without having taken on the ‘Mullah argument’ re child marriages as that seems to be the major stumbling block in enforcing such laws.
    The sooner Pakistan becomes a secular state (guided by religious doctrine) rather than the other way around, the sooner it can find the route to progress.Recommend

  • HZR

    How does that answer the present problem here. They have the resources and when you mean teen they are over eighteen.anything less than that and they are arreste for child rape!Recommend

  • Parvez

    Although one is aware of such practices but reading about in detail does numb the mind. This obviously is a societal problem with a complex solution, if any. What complicated matters in Pakistan is the injection of religion into the equation and when the CII makes regressive recommendations, it only helps exacerbate the situation.Recommend

  • Critical

    You cannot compare both of them just for sake of argument

    Child marriage is done by the compulsion of the parents and relatives without the choice of the girl

    Teen pregnancies happen because the girls do it out of their own will…Also they have laws to prosecute the males for rape if they are more than 18 yrs old

    Yes,it may be morally wrong but is just forced ..Recommend

  • Joe

    Lol what does has west has to do with this article? Your mind can not think beyond the western hatred. thanks to the molvis of your country.Recommend

  • Maximus Decimus Meridius

    well not much of a norm, rather a grey area which is not taboo but kinda frowned upon by the elder generation. however there are so many cases these days that what you are saying will become reality quite soon. something which happens on daily bases goes from taboo to grey area and then to norm pretty quickly.Recommend

  • abreez

    Now I think time has come when we realize that Pakistan is
    multi ethnic and multi-cultural country, and every ethnic group and culture has
    its own do and don’t. The world is full
    of problems, while world economy is slowing down, world’s biggest poverty India
    ‘s supreme court has asked its government to make law that legalize children
    born because of live in relationship.
    Indian supreme court give a decision that live in relationship neither a
    sin nor a crime. A country where 97%
    population is living with $150 or 15000 rupee per month, a country where
    40,000,000 are living with $37 or 3700 rupee per month, a country where
    48,100,000 people are living with $60 or 6000 per month, that country doesn’t
    mind more children. Europe is facing low
    birth rate and in 2013 in UK 47% babies born out of wed lock and no one mind
    that. But when something happen in
    Pakistan then that news quickly become headline in world’s newspapers, in
    Pakistan every new comer face criticism from someone who sooner or later will

  • Syeda KAzmi

    what confuses me is that the age defined in our religion for a girl to get married is the same.. even there are multiple accounts in history about the age of Hazrat Ayesha at the time of her marriage..Recommend

  • sharabi

    can you provide same standard of Nutrition, Medical facilities, Utilities and of-course free council home along with a good amount of cash? If not than rethink about your comment.Recommend

  • Maximus Decimus Meridius

    I did not mean to compare them as in which is better and which worse. I was pointing out that in Pakistan society and the coming generation is being destroyed by child marriages while the same damage to society is being done by teen pregnancies in the west.Recommend

  • Sarfraz

    look my brother In europe that teen pregnant girl is not made to clean home and do other chores for 12hrs a day possibly even working outside home plus having kids. please stop comparing and look at whats in our country. Author has not made a issue out of it. Its the reality which is always bitter. See it so we can fix it.Recommend

  • Anjum

    There is nothing wrong in child marriage it is sanctioned in Islam. The prophet Muhammad (pbuh) married Ayesha and it is well evidenced that she was six years old. This way you get a pure wife. My mother also was young when when she married and she now from the troubles of old age and children.Recommend

  • Moiz Omar

    It is actually rare. Not the norm.Recommend

  • Moiz Omar

    Why even in the 21st Century, do these things still happen? Such a shame. Also the minimum marriage age in all of Pakistan should be eighteen for both genders. The Government should raise it immediately.Recommend

  • Nero

    Dear Author: “She is one of the 42% of girls in the country (24% from rural areas and 18% for urban areas)”

    There is something wrong with these number. Doesn’t seem to be statistically possible.Recommend

  • abreez

    Life is difficult whatever some may think, daily I heard
    stories if tell anyone he won’t believe me, but

    Mur Gaey Tu Pheir Kahaan Hu-san Zar Zandgi

    Zakhem Dil Gehra Sahi Pheir Bi Jena ChaheiaRecommend

  • Naeem

    Forget the West ,look at your own house!!!Recommend

  • Naeem

    Nonsense. The Prophet got engaged to Ayesha at 18 and married her at 21. Historical documents prove this. Islam does not sanction underage marriage. You have no knowledge of true Islam!!Get an education!!!Recommend

  • Sane

    In west mostly are not married in any age.Recommend

  • Arsha

    No it has not. Also the girls are not forced to marry anyone, and an adult marrying a minor would land him in jail right away. The girl has the right to terminate pregnancy and lift herself back into a normal life, or if she chooses to give birth she can get counselling, child support, single mother support, etc etc.

  • Katarina

    It is not important if you are married or not. The important thing is that children should not be forced to have sex or get children.Recommend

  • Anjum

    It is hadith. Just read Sahih Bukhari 9.140. I have an education in Hadith and besides I am a Syed so I should know.Recommend

  • harmony

    All these people who are talking of the west, just think how would you feel if ur sister or daughter is married wen she is 12 or 13 to a 50 yrs old man. Leave the west to tackle their problems lets look into our own backyard and get rid of these heinous crimes committed in the name of religion and culture.Recommend

  • Hassnain abdurrehman

    You mean we should love the west ?Recommend

  • Thought

    We continue to be the bystanders of this.We shut the debate with a simple line of ‘traditions and culture’.Well these traditions and cultures would result in deaths of females barely adults! My maid’s daughter was married off to a man who was twice her age and has two kids. Does’nt she have a right to choose to get married to whom and when? We as a society need to stop this!Recommend

  • Thinking-Muslim

    Marrying a child gets you a pure wife???? And you attribute this horrendous thought to Muhammad (saw) the best among mankind? Ayesha (r.a) is the greatest scholar of Islam, she could not have been a six year old. The evidence relating to her six-year-old age is sourced from one lone man, and it refutes other evidence, both physical and logical.
    Being a Syed means zilch!!! There is no birthright in Islam, only your deeds matter!Recommend

  • Moiz Omar

    Why is marriage so important? It is just a ceremony.Recommend

  • Riz Haque

    Marriage itself is not bad above age 16.But the way girls are treated post marriage is a bad thing. In west, sexual relationship with consent result in high levels of pre marriage pregnancies.Recommend

  • Half syed

    Omg. This way you get a pure wife. Seriously? By that reasoning how about marrying them at 2 or right after their mother gives birth to them. What sort of a sick mentality is this?

  • zt

    people like u single handedly give us a primitive reputation. And just because u are a “syed” doesn’t mean u are automatically entitled to just claim whatever you want. Im appalled by ur comments.Recommend

  • Kamath

    You have a right to write, but not manufacture facts!Recommend