This is the fourth part of a series on child marriages. Read the first, second and third parts.
Poverty is a globally-recognised driver of child marriages that impacts the health and education of a girl child with adverse consequences for her life. A consistent and strong association between household and community poverty and child marriage (Parson et al, 2015) is documented in terms of higher prevalence among households with lower quintile ranking. On the other hand, it is being investigated whether the alleviation of poverty alone (in the absence of changes in work or educational opportunities for men and women, for example) can delay marriage patterns. Similarly, while the association between early marriage and low educational attainment is strong (Male and Wodon, 2018), change in child marriage has not kept pace with increase school attendance (Mensch, Bruce and Greene, 1998) and in specific contexts large scale programs that increased schooling did not successfully delay marriage (Das, 2008).
Child marriage for girls often entails large age difference between spouses resulting in gendered power dynamics in favor of men as well as eventual widowhood for women (Mensch, 1987; Mensch, Bruce and Greene, 1998). Yet, parents who arrange child marriages believe they are acting in the child’s best interest citing socio-cultural and religious concerns about their marriageability if they are considered too old and fear of “missing out” on good marriage options (socio-economic status of groom); and concerns about the sexual security of girls. There are also concerns of being an economic burden on families, in certain cases (Erulkar, 2013; Santhya et al 2010; HInden et al. 2008).
Child marriage for girls often entails large age difference between spouses resulting in gendered power dynamics in favor of men as well as eventual widowhood for women
Discourse and practices around early marriage in Pakistan are embedded in and informed by the larger socio-cultural narratives around marriage and sexuality, which is no different from world, as explained above. These include the trade of symbolic and/or economic goods associated with marriage. More critical micro narratives for understanding marriage patterns and practices though, are around the regulation and control over sexuality, specifically female sexuality. Across the world, the level of legal, social, political and/or economic restrictions on female sexuality defines gender roles, norms and indeed, power dynamics. Often, religion is used for narrative or frame bridging. There is, however, no global trend suggesting that one religious group has higher rates of child marriage than another.
Broad drivers of Child Marriage in Pakistan are:
Poverty gets associated with correlates of child marriages like specific marriage practices, customs, education and occupation. Many studies have, on the other hand, attributed an association between household wealth and child marriage.
Girls in the middle to lower wealth quintile are labeled as temporary residents hence an investment which has no benefits for the natal household. The financial distress and poor health conditions that result from the imbalance between household demands and parents’ ability to satisfy those demands pushes children into work and a lifelong struggle to meet levels of even basic subsistence, and robs them of their basic rights to education, development, good health, and protection. Therefore, investing in her future through education is not contextualised as an economic investment.
Marriages generally are elaborative across income strata and when linked with dower, it becomes an expensive proposition – a business which is not limited to dower. The expanse of wedding events, stretched on days, differs as per socio-economic status of the family. Besides, there are a range of gifts for the groom’s parents and immediate family. Therefore, dower also plays a role in acceptance of early marriage proposals as younger girls get more proposals and for ‘over age’ girls the list of dower gets long.
Personal safety/chastity, poverty, food insecurity and strengthened bonding within family/clan are oft stated reasons. However, economic costs associated with marriage in terms of its materializing and acceptance bride-price practice are generally lumped under the reasoning of poverty.
Child and maternal health is, perhaps, the most significant index of social development in a country and reflects the level of nutrition, education, and access to health services. Health expenditures deepen the vulnerabilities in an income insecure household that takes health expenditure on a girl/woman as an additional drain. Food insecurity and multidimensional poverty, especially post COVID-19, has further skewed this misperception against a girl child.
- Social Norms Traditions, customs around marriage practices.
Social norms are behavioural rules that people in a group conform to because they believe most other people in the group conform to it (i.e. typical behaviour) and believe others in the group think they ought to conform to it (i.e. appropriate behaviour) (Alexander-Scott, Bell, Holden, 2016). Social norms evolve through practice and change during adaptation. It builds societal acceptance, or otherwise, based on the interactions and interests of people, holding societal power. Social norms sustain under the fear of social sanction and fear of being ostracized (Young, 2014). Behaviour and interest of stakeholders play a key role in its constant re-negotiation that helps them evolve. Social norms are mostly religio-legitimized and anchored in traditional customs.
Social norms are behavioural rules that people in a group conform to because they believe most other people in the group conform to it (i.e. typical behaviour) and believe others in the group think they ought to conform to it (i.e. appropriate behaviour)
Pakistan has universal marriage. In the social construct of the society marriage serves specific primary objectives i.e. save the chastity/ ‘honor’ for the family, legitimise sex and procreate. Promiscuity is feared for unmarried girls. Parents and family are the guardians of female chastity. Parents live under the socially ill-perceived fear that if the girls remain unmarried either they will have an extra marital affair and/or elope as a consequence. Therefore, it’s ok and better to marry them early so that family ‘honor’ is protected.
In order to understand the context of early /child marriage, following marriage patterns are important i.e.
- Marriage between the children of immediate siblings and extended family, called Watta Satta i.e. exchange of girls in marriage between two families, which mostly is consanguineous marriages where women have a say in choosing her husband. Colloquially is known as marriage within Shareeka (socio-familial ties). Besides strengthening familial ties, it has its economics that plays part in child marriages. For lower wealth quintiles, parents gain by shifting the economic responsibility from natal to martial household. In such settings, the option of child marriage covers the inability to provide for dower and/or arrange for wedding expenditure. On the other hand, for high wealth quintiles, its economics leads to strengthening and multiplication of family’s assets (land, etc) and political clout.
- The other marriage pattern is under harmful tradition/customs where a girl child to women is used as peace collateral or object of reconciliation. This has many names across Pakistan i.e. Swara/ Vani, Badal, Badal suleha, which are a reconciliatory mechanism (marrying off a girl as dispute resolution between families). This is not a norm as far as marriage practices are concerned; and some of its reported cases are of child marriage as well. These practices are not necessarily drivers of child marriages on their own but impact upon the context of marriage. In the case of Swara/ Vani, a girl in itself becomes an object of punishment and is given in marriage irrespective of her age or groom’s age. If a young ‘chaste’/virgin girl is not available the next born girl child (unborn at that time) is agreed in Swara or Vani. The younger have higher economic value because of their ‘chaste’ status. Girls married under this practice are transferred to aggrieved homes upon attaining puberty/coming of age. These practices stand criminalized but are still taking place.
- The concept of bride money (Sar-paisa/ Walwaar), is socially recorded in pockets of southern Punjab, Sindh and KP. In it a girls’ father is recipient of money from groom’s family in return for the marriage proposal. It is socially not considered a taboo. The value is determined by age and beauty: younger and fairer gets more value – as they are expected to be chaste. The large age difference between bride (girl child) and groom is mostly recorded in cases where bride money is involved.
- Age, Consent and role of Family in marriage decisions and practices
The decision-making process regarding marriage has its own formal and informal processes, roles and responsibilities. Formally, its honorable for a father to decide about the marriage of his girl. Decision for early child marriage is not taken by parents – across wealth quintiles- as a harmful practice and is rather taken in compliance to social norms and customary practices. Determination of age is critical for application of age bar and ensuring right to consent which is compromised by limited birth registration. Limited birth registration impacts implementation of the CMRA 1929 specific age bar of even 16 years.
Parents’ preference for Shareeka marriages – to strength inter family relationship with their siblings – at times, has a pattern of pre-decided marriages which is decided at the time of the birth of their children. This consent is taken away that early from both boys and girls and their age becomes immaterial.
It is socially acceptable for the father of the girl to take the decision of the marriage. Therefore, in most cases the question of age does not even come up. Under Muslim Family Law of 1961 the concept of “Vakil’ i.e. representative and ‘Vali” i.e. guardian takes away the right to exercise consent from a girl. The actors involved in child marriage, mostly parent and immediate family, control the consent. The practice of verbal Nikkah, mostly in KP, does not require any documentation. Overall, in societal settings Nikhakhawan cannot/ does not ask to see the girl to guess her age by her physical appearance or insist on getting her consent in person.
The consent is also taken away when girls/women get synonymized with the concept of family honor; in which marriage specific decisions are for the parents. At one end it’s linked to her chastity; and on the other they are used as an object to barter i.e. used in reconciliation to bride money. In both instances age becomes immaterial and chances of child/early marriage are high. Socially, an unmarried and overaged girl is worse than early marriage; and ‘good’ girls are supposed to get married as per parental decision.
- Religious Misperceptions
Puberty is socio-culturally taken as the marker of religio-acceptance of the age to marry and linked to Quran in an uncontextualized manner. Generally, the local Molvi of a mosque in the village is Nikahkhawan and has negligible, if at all, knowledge about Islamic jurisprudence/ Shariah and its application. Mostly their literacy is limited to Arabic reading of Quran, through rote memorization, having no understanding of language. They continue to propagate early marriage for girls taking misinterpreted refuge of puberty for girls as call of Shariah. On the other hand, in poor economic household settings no one approaches him either to know about national laws on marriage, correct legal age for a child, and if CM is illegal or not.
In islamic jurisprudence all such practices has been discouraged – be it under Jamia Al Azhar in its fatwa where it termed forced marriages, without a girl’s consent, to be immoral and equivalent to the death sentence for the girl. The Federal Shariat court in Pakistan, in October 2021, has also stated that there is nothing unislamic in setting an age bar for marriage for girls by the State.
- Fragmented Legal Landscape and institutional Protection Constitutional provisions
The Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan binds the State to ensure welfare of citizen sans any discrimination of caste, creed or gender. The CMRA 1929 is covered under Criminal law and elaborated under Criminal Penal Code (Cr.P.C); whereas marriage and it annulment is dealt under family law which is governed by the Civil Penal Code (CPC). Therefore, upon its enforcement perpetrator of child marriage can be punished but validity of marriage remains as it does not annul a contracted CM.
A child bride is expected to move family court for annulment of marriage which is next to impossible. On the other hand there are no institutional protection facilities for such child brides (adolescent girls) that can act as their social safeguards. Shelters are for adults and not for underage child brides. Together, it severely hinders the potential of the law to be a deterrent.
Efforts at reform through amendments in CMRA1929 law face opposition from within political parties due to the perceived impact on patriarchal structures; and secondly, to not compromise the radical right voters base. The police, on the other hand, has limited to weak knowledge on application of CMRA; besides a patriarchal mindset that trivialise such issues as ‘family matters’.