Who will decide for Her?

145

By: Ahmed Umer Sohaib

For last few days, a picture was circulating on twitter showing a 60 year old man was married to a 14 year old girl. Horrendous as it appears, but such bizarre cases of child marriages are not new to a society like ours where customs and norms dominate the will and life of a young girl. But this time the issue received an unprecedented significance because of the fact that a Child Marriage Restraint (amendment) Bill is in the parliament.

The bill proposes a minimum age for marriage is 18 years. As it was anticipated earlier, the right wing parties created ruckus on this bill. They have deprecated this bill as against the norms of Islam. Furthermore, they attributed it as an overt attempt to curb population (for them, 200 million is still inadequate).

It is unfathomable that how Pakistan is benefiting from child brides who later on are mistreated and left at the mercy of usually an older man? It’s a crystal fact that a 14 year old girl is neither self-sufficient nor independent. Moreover, she is not emotionally, biologically and mentally stable to deal with the responsibilities that are thrust down her throat at this tender age. Even a 14 year old boy for that matter, is not self-sufficient or even mentally mature to handle responsibilities like that. So how can they justify a woman in that place who is more open to vulnerability and exploitation? How come in the same household 14 year old boys are not married off and they are taken care of by the same parents, but it is always the daughter who is traded like a cattle?

When this bill was first introduced by Senator Sehar Kamran in 2018, it was lambasted by CII and offered huge impediments to this bill and resultantly it couldn’t get approved. Female senators supported this bill along with highlighting difficulties of becoming a mother at a young age. But how a CII – that is comprised 99% of men – can decide the pertinent issues that largely revolve around women?

Let’s see all this matter through social and economic lens. Our resources are finite and the population growth rate is not sustaining the current level of resources. China adopted the “one child policy” owing to the same reasons. Over population is detrimental for sustainable economic growth. Our population rate is increasing faster than we are able to provide for it: food, water, shelter, electricity, jobs etc. Dams and industrialization don’t happen overnight and are just one facet of the problem. Economic growth depends on IT and Artificial Intelligence. Pakistan is far behind on technological development and other international laws make it harder for technological transfer. How are we going to produce enough food without advanced seeds? How are we going to develop more human capital when we already haven’t benefitted from the current demographic dividend? An illiterate population is no good use to the nation. Even cheap labor around the world is being replaced by technology and robotics. What have we done for our population bulge that we are going to benefit from uncontrolled rate of population?

Compared to that Egypt, Turkey and other Muslim countries have laws that prohibit marriage before 18. Egypt is strongly influenced by the Muslim brotherhood. And yet they were able to pass these laws with such conservative elements. Why can’t we?

UK has strict domestic violence and marital rape laws. They also help women through divorce by allowing her alimony and child support. UK system provides shelter and government support to women who are not financially independent. Also, UK has drafted so many laws to legally protect a woman in a marriage.

It is devastating to see that religious parties openly endorse such exploitation of women and when they need to be educating people instead to stop seeing daughters as an economic burden. Ask those in CII and the MNAs who are against this bill: would they be alright with seeing their 13 year old daughter being married off? Or their sister? Most of them would reply back in negative.

Child Marriage Restraint (amendment) Bill is very much in conformity with not only the social needs rather it is also in conformity with the international convention and treaties. Since Pakistan is signatory to several international conventions, as per which the age of adulthood is 18.

Already women are not given their basic fundamental rights and are treated lesser than men. Especially in rural parts of the society. By marrying them off at such an early age, we are just continuing a vicious cycle. How is this solving any problem in the long run? This culture is prevalent in areas where tribal bonding is very intact. KPK government needs to implement such bill in tribal areas of KPK. With this amendment through bill, it will curtail child marriages.

Instead of just getting rid of the problem like that and allowing a terrible system to prevail, that continues to subjugate and exploit women, we are not solving anything. How is this going to solve poverty even, when a woman is being sold off and is in no better position and is dependent on her husband for life?

It is a moment of reckoning for parliament to at least reform the system. The minimum age of marriage to be increased to 18, so that girls won’t be traded like a cattle. The female parliamentarians need to do better lobbying for this bill so that it gets majority vote. For the sake of health and emotional stability of girls, this bill needs consent from National assembly with majority.

The writer is a lecturer and an academic researcher at Superior University Lahore. He is also a youth correspondent to Common Wealth in Pakistan. He can be reached at [email protected]