25/01/2016 8:22 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

A 5-Pronged Approach To Fighting Child Marriage

ASIF HASSAN via Getty Images
Pakistani brides attend a mass marriage ceremony in Karachi late March 26, 2013. Some 110 couples participated in the mass wedding ceremony organised by a local charity welfare trust Al Ghousia. AFP PHOTO / ASIF HASSAN (Photo credit should read ASIF HASSAN/AFP/Getty Images)

In a major setback for child rights in Pakistan this month, a bill to ban underage marriage -- the Child Marriage Restraint (Amendment) Bill 2014 , introduced by Marvi Memon of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (N) -- was withdrawn at the last minute because of the pressure from the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII). They dubbed the bill as blasphemous and a blatant violation of Islamic teachings. The spokesperson for the council questioned the competence of the parliament to legislate on issues that are at variance of teachings of the Holy Quran or Sunnah.

The present law permits girls as young as nine years of age to be married, provided they have attained puberty. The proposed legislation recommended giving out harsher punishments to those entering a marriage with a minor, as well as raising the minimum age of marriage for women to 18 years. Sadly, it looks like the law will not be protecting these children in Pakistan any time soon because of certain religious leaders.

According to a 2014 UNICEF report, over 33% of girls in India were married before reaching the legal age of 18.

Child marriage is a pernicious practice that not only robs the girls of their childhood, but also deprives them of opportunities to access education and gainful employment, apart from posing psychological and health issues because of early pregnancies. But Pakistan is not the only country in South Asia in which this dubious "tradition" continues to be perpetuated.

India has a strong law banning marriages for girls under 18 and boys who are under 21. Under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006, any person who contravenes the law may face two years in prison with a fine of Rs 1, 00,000 ($ 1500). Despite this law, though, India has one of the highest number of child marriages in the world. According to a 2014 UNICEF report, "Ending Child Marriage-Progress and Prospects", over 33% of girls in India were married before reaching the legal age of 18. Most of the marriages occur among the poorer section of society in rural India.

Says the report:

"Child marriage among girls is most common in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, and the 10 countries with the highest rates are found in these two regions. Niger has the highest overall prevalence of child marriage in the world. However, Bangladesh has the highest rate of marriage involving girls under age 15. South Asia is home to almost half (42%) of all child brides worldwide; India alone accounts for one third of the global total.

Although child marriages in India have seen a steep decline through programmes initiated by both the government and NGOs, we still have the highest reported cases of child marriage in the region, after Bangladesh.

So, how can this problem be tackled in the region? I believe the following steps are essential.

1. Separation of State and religion

This applies particularly to Islamic countries like Pakistan. The State must be All kept separate from religion so that the so called defenders of religion do not override the powers vested on the parliament.

2. Empowerment of children

Schooling should be made compulsory for all children, as studies have shown that child marriage is more prevalent in communities that do not encourage the education of girls; in addition, schooling has been shown to cause a decline in rates of child marriage. One way of preventing child marriages of girls is to give them some financial incentive to continue their education in school. A stipend of Rs 1000 per month will partly offset the financial needs of their parents and deter them from marrying off their underage daughters. Secondly, by providing education to children, we can increase their chances of finding employment and not being viewed as economic burdens.

Schooling has been shown to cause a decline in rates of child marriage

3. Allocation of Budget to spread awareness

Both the Central and state governments should allocate funds to spread awareness in remote villages on the evils of child marriages.

4. Empowering village heads

The village head/gram pradhan/sarpanch exerts a great influence. S/he should be empowered to stop child marriages by bringing it to the notice to the district authorities. Any infringement should be made a cognizable offence.

5. More teeth to existing laws

The coverage of the present law of enforcing two years imprisonment, and a fine of Rs, 1,00,000 in India should be extended to cover all those who aid and abet such marriages, like the priests and kazis who solemnize such unions, guests etc. This will force people to boycott such marriages.

It now impinges on the Governments in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh to take adequate steps, in not only enforcing the law, but also to spread awareness on the evils of such practices.

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