Pakistan: despite minor setback there is progress on child marriage

  • Comments by the Council of Islamic Ideology - calling child marriage restraint law "un-Islamic" - do not reflect progress in Pakistan
  • Sindh increased the age of marriage to 18 for girls in 2013; Punjab tightened punishment against child marriages in 2015; and legislation is pending in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
  • Pakistan should disregard the Council's position and honour its many commitments to end child marriage
Laiba Hussan, Samra Bibi and Kainat Fayyaz read books in the library at Bagga Sheikhan school near Rawalpindi, supported by Developments in Literacy (DIL) , Punjab Province, Pakistan. | Credit: Stars Foundation | Kristian Buus

Earlier this week, Pakistani clerics from the Council of Islamic Ideology condemned a bill to raise the age of marriage to 18 for girls, calling it “un-Islamic” and “blasphemous” and leading the legislature to drop the proposal. The bill would have imposed harsher penalties on those who arrange child marriages and raised the legal age of marriage for girls from 16 to 18.

One setback among broader progress

While this move is disappointing, it is neither new nor a sign of major setback, according to Girls Not Brides members in Pakistan. Most importantly, it shouldn’t detract attention from recent progress to end child marriage in the country.

Significantly, jurisdiction for family law rests with the provincial legislatures. This particular bill would not have banned child marriage in all of Pakistan, only in the capital of Islamabad.

The picture elsewhere is more hopeful. For instance, in Sindh and Punjab, two provinces that alone account for more than 75 percent of Pakistan’s population, we are seeing significant progress:

  • In 2013, Sindh adopted a law banning child marriages, introducing stricter punishment and higher fines, and increasing the age of marriage to 18 for girls.
  • In March 2015, Punjab followed suit and introduced stricter punishment and higher fines. However, the age limit remains 16 years old for girls and 18 for boys.

Elsewhere in the country, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly is also considering increasing the age of marriage to 18 for girls and boys without any discrimination. Baluchistan, however, has yet to initiate legislation on the issue.

Civil society speaks up

Civil society is concerned that the bill’s withdrawal may reflect a lack of political will on the part of the central government to address child marriage in Pakistan, where 1 in 5 girls are married before 18, and have strongly condemned the Council’s comments.

Qamar Naseem, coordinator of the Provincial Alliance to End Early, Forced and Child Marriages KP/FATA, said: “We the citizens of Pakistan and concerned civil society strongly, loudly and outright reject [these] statements against women and girls, and early marriage criteria.”

He stressed that the Council’s ruling went against the agreed positions of Islamic countries in the Khartoum Declaration (Second Islamic Conference of Ministers in Charge of Childhood) and the Cairo Declaration (Organisation of the Islamic Conference), which call upon Islamic countries to increase the age of marriage to 18.

Across Pakistan, civil society is at the forefront of efforts to end child marriage. They are successfully pushing for stronger laws, working closely with communities and law enforcement agencies to change attitudes, and collaborating with religious leaders to promote alternative readings of the Quran.

In Sindh, Nikahkhawans are preventing child marriages by requesting birth certificates before conducting the marriage. In Peshawar, religious leaders are starting conversations on violence against women and girls in mosques. In the Swat valley, the country’s first all-female Jirga works closely with religious leaders in the traditional dispute resolutions system to address issues affecting women and children and refer crimes to law enforcement agencies and lawyers.

Pakistan should honour its commitments to end child marriage

It is not the first time that the Council of Islamic Ideology has opposed legislation on child marriage. In 2014, it declared child marriage restraint laws un-Islamic, causing outrage and prompting dismissal from civil society and media.

The Council was created to ensure that all laws in Pakistan conform to Islamic principles. Its rulings are influential but they are also non-binding and the government can choose to disregard them. Importantly, its stance should not be an excuse for policy-makers to push back on pending legislation in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province or elsewhere in the country.

The Council’s position is unfortunate and retrograde, but does not reflect broader progress on the issue in Pakistan. In addition to the provincial progress, Pakistan was the country that first proposed target 5.3 to end child marriage in the Global Goals for Sustainable Development. It should be reminded to honour its existing commitments, said Girls Not Brides members in Pakistan.

Pakistan is signatory to: