“Child marriage is a crime! It is injustice! It leads to social isolation, and robs the educational opportunities from a girl. A girl has a complete right to live her life fully, and should not be forced into early marriage”. Fatima, a BBA student who voluntarily participated in a series of activities held by ActionAid Pakistan to mark 16 days of activism to call for elimination of all forms of violence against women.
Reflecting on background of the campaign, it is pertinent to mention here that ActionAid Pakistan’s wider presence in far flung areas particularly the disaster hit localities has enabled it to measure the intensity of the early girl marriage issue. There has been a reported increase in incidents of early marriage within the disaster impacted communities due to socio-cultural and economic insecurities of the people.
Youth from 5 different public and private universities in Islamabad and Rawalpindi, namely: National College of Arts (NCA); Quaid-e-Azam University (QAU); Fatima Jinnah Women’s University (FJWU); Preston University; and Szabist were involved in a series of interconnected activities which included Dolls’ protest, poetry recitation, speech competition, art marathon and policy discussion forums. A concerted effort was made to engage the media as key stakeholders of the campaign, ActionAid along with the youth held radio programmes and press conferences to reiterate the message of stopping early girl marriage.
“I am against early girls’ marriage, because it is wrong for the girls, both physically and mentally. Girls can’t bear the responsibility of starting a new family at such a young age”. Abdul Rehman, a student and youth volunteer said.
Mural paintings were drawn by NCA students to highlight issues of women and girls in Pakistan particularly in context of early girl marriage, promoting girls right to school and ending violence against women.
From the beginning, the campaign engaged youth, media, government personnel and civil society representatives to draft and endorse recommendations (summarized below) for rectifying legal lacunas of the Child Marriage Restraint Act 1929.
- The Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929 has defined the official age of marriage for girls to be 16 years. It is not justified to legalize marriage at such a tender age and this law needs to be revised. The campaign called for revisions in the law to change the age of marriage for girls to a minimum of 18 years.
- Even though the law exists defining 16 years as the minimum age of marriage for girls, it continues to be disregarded by the public and girls are very often married at ages less than 16 years. There is therefore need to ensure implementation of the law and strict measures need to be taken in this regard.
- The punishment for solemnizing a child marriage remains one month imprisonment or a fine of Rs. 1,000, which is too minimal for the parties undertaking such actions to be concerned. It was therefore felt that the penalties should be increased to match the crime.
- Birth Registration system of the country is also faulty and a large part of the population remains unregistered up until such a point when there is need for a National Identification Card. Revisions within the system are therefore crucial and incentives to register the birth of a child could prove to be beneficial. Assistance of LHVs could be sought for this purpose.
- If the Nikah Nama (marriage contract) includes the requirement of possessing a CNIC for it to be finalized, the minimum age of marriage for both boys and girls will automatically become 18 years.
- Mass awareness raising campaigns need to be initiated to sensitize the general public regarding girl child marriage. Media can play a critical role in passing key messages to the public in a gender sensitive manner.
- There is need for revisions in school curriculums to include gender sensitive messages highlighting the importance of women’s rights, and leading to a paradigm shift in the attitudes of the society.
- The biggest hurdles in preventing girl child marriage remain cultural practices and traditional attitudes of the people. These cannot be changed by any single agency and there is need for a collective, unified voice to be raised against the issue by every sector of the society.
- Men remain the decision makers within the society and their roles as fathers, brothers and husbands needs to be emphasized. There is need to work directly and repeatedly with men to sensitize them and change their attitudes towards women.