Last October, 14-year-old Huma Younus left her home in the port city of Karachi and travelled to neighbouring Punjab province with an older Muslim man named Abdul Jabbar. That month, without informing her Catholic family, Younus married Jabbar in a traditional wedding ceremony.
Younus’ parents were devastated by the marriage, which occurred without their approval. They labelled it a kidnapping and forced conversion case, one of at least a thousand that are recorded annually in Pakistan. In early February, Younus’ parents sought to extricate their daughter from the marriage; after all, she was 14, and the child marriage laws in Sindh required every girl to be 18 to enter a union. They appealed to the courts for an intervention, seeking a marriage annulment through Pakistan’s judicial system. The parents argued that Younus had been abducted by an older Muslim man and forced to marry him and convert against her will. But Younus’ parents were shocked when the two Muslim judges presiding over the case argued that the marriage was valid, even if Younus was fourteen. Under Islamic law, the judges said that if a girl has had her first period, she was eligible to marry a man. The family soon learned that Younus – who was not present in the courtroom that day – would not be returning to them.
Younus’ case is not unique. Pakistan is home to one of the globe’s largest child bride populations; 21 percent of Pakistani girls marry before the age of 18. More than a third of Pakistan’s population is children, and activists estimate that approximately 700 Christian and 300 Hindu girls undergo forced marriage and conversion each year in the country. According to UNICEF data, Pakistan’s child bride population is the world’s sixth-highest. Despite a ban in Sindh province against child marriages, the federal government still permits a girl to marry at the age of sixteen, despite requiring boys to be 18. Last year, 104 child marriage cases were reported nationwide, although the real number is likely much higher, according to the Islamabad-based child protection NGO Sahil.
The impact of child marriage is far-reaching, and exerts a negative impact on a girl’s economic, educational, and health outcomes over an entire lifespan. In terms of health consequences, child marriages are linked to a higher infant mortality rate, a higher risk of premature and low-weight babies, and pregnancy complications like obstetric fistula. Moreover, child brides face a higher risk of death from early childbirth, particularly due to the fact child marriages predominate in rural areas – where healthcare infrastructure and skilled birth attendants are already rare. The country already has alarmingly high mortality rates for pregnant women: every 20 minutes, pregnancy complications and childbirth lead to a woman’s death in Pakistan, and 8 percent of girls from the age of 20 give birth before the age of 18.
Moreover, child marriage is not a single event in a girl’s life; it exists on a continuum of harm that extends over decades. Child brides have a higher likelihood of facing intimate partner violence, marital rape, and a higher incidence of school dropouts and low quality employment. Education serves to prevent child marriages, but child marriages can reduce a girl’s educational attainment. Multiple reports show that child marriage condemns a girl bride to worse outcomes across all indicators, whether it’s education, employment, or health.
The economic costs of child marriage are also a major concern for countries like Pakistan. By 2030, child marriages are expected to cost the world’s poorest developing economies almost four trillion dollars. In 2017, one study showed that if Pakistan ended child marriage, the country would see a 13 percent increase in its earnings. For a country already teetering on the edge of economic disaster, ending child marriages presents one avenue to expand the earning power of households. Most child marriage households are single-income households, where the majority of women undertake uncompensated labor in the fields or through childcare. But if girls marry later, they are more likely to have the education and employment qualifications for more skilled work that would increase the likelihood of transforming these homes into dual-income households, thereby alleviating the financial pressures on a single male breadwinner. Given the enormous costs child marriage exacts on a young girl, her struggling household, and the national economy at large, it is imperative that South Asian countries – all of which suffer from high levels of child marriage – reconsider the practice.
Still, there are myriad reasons why child marriages persist in Pakistan, ranging from rural poverty to the absence of education and patriarchal customs that view girls as property to be bartered. In the colonial era, the British created a law raising the legal age to marry to fourteen and levied a 1,000 rupee fine ($6) upon all violators. The law continues to be on Pakistan’s books as the 1929 Child Marriage Restraint Act, which post-Partition Pakistan has since updated by raising the marriageable age to sixteen for girls (it’s 18 for boys). Indeed, the child marriage laws in question in Pakistan are not Islamic laws, but archaic, colonial-era British laws that have languished on the books out of a lack of political will to challenge them, and a misunderstanding among Pakistanis that these colonial-era laws protect and uphold Islamic strictures. Meanwhile, the same inherited laws have been supplanted with legislation outlawing the practice in other former colonies like India.
Furthermore, it is significant that Younus’ case occurred in Sindh province, the only province that bans child marriage. The Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act 2013 criminalizes marriages below eighteen, imposing a minimum punishment of two years imprisonment for those organizing the marriage, and jail time for anyone solemnizing the marriage. While it is promising that there is one province that proscribes the practice, there remains a lack of enforcement of the law, and when I spoke to police officials across Karachi about the total number of first information reports (FIRs) registered for child marriage cases, no police official could provide even an estimated tally. Moreover, when judges and police officials are approached about child marriage cases, they often lack a sensitivity toward child brides. Indeed, some conservative judges and policemen are sometimes disinclined to log forced conversion cases of child brides due to a belief that the conversion itself was a positive step.
Nevertheless, Pakistan is not alone in permitting child marriage – it joins 116 countries around the globe, according to the World Economic Forum. But Pakistan has signed on to multiple international agreements pledging to end child marriage. These range from the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which asks nations to raise the minimum marriageable age to 18 and to obtain consent before marriage. Moreover, in 2014, Pakistan joined other South Asian countries in agreeing to set the minimum marriage age at 18 under the Kathmandu Call to Action to End Child Marriage in Asia. The pledge enumerated a list of demands ranging from establishing 18 as the uniform minimum age of marriage to eliminating discriminatory laws concerning child marriage.
Pakistan also has an obligation to end early and forced marriages under the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, as target 5.3 aims to “eliminate all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage.” To date, this has gone unfulfilled. The opposition largely stems from right-wing religious parties like Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam and Jamaat-e-Islami, as well as the Council of Islamic Ideology, an advisory body whose rulings have no weight but which repeatedly calls raising the minimum marriage age to 18 as “un-Islamic,” under the misguided premise that any girl reaching puberty is eligible for marriage.
Despite this, other Islamic countries have made inroads in ending child marriage. Last December, Saudi Arabia instituted a de facto ban on all marriages below the age of eighteen, following other examples in Muslim-majority countries like Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman. Despite a long campaign led by child rights activists to end these marriages in Pakistan, it remains to be seen if the country will follow suit.
Sabrina Toppa is a journalist based in Lahore, Pakistan. Follow her on Twitter @SabrinaToppa