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Too much, too early: underage marriage


What should a poor father do if he has two options to choose from? Either he has to marry off his five-year-old daughter to his rival’s six-year-old son as a settlement of a dispute or give the rival one million Pakistani rupees (some 8,333 euros) as a settlement.

If answering that one is difficult, try this one. What should a 14-year-old girl in a typical rural area of Pakistan do when she wants to go to school or say play dolls with her friends when her newborn is crying waiting to be fed?

These are some very common situations in most rural and even some urban areas in Pakistan. This, unfortunately, is not only the case in Pakistan. In neighboring Bangladesh, Afghanistan and India and many girls in Africa are facing similar problems, if not worse.

Everyday 25,000 girls are robbed of their childhood and forced into a relationship they do not have the slightest idea about. Due to this sudden transition from a young girl to a woman with responsibilities they never get to know what growing into adulthood actually feels like.  

My housemaid’s 14 year old daughter’s marriage last year was no less of a shock to me. Seeing a child in her lap a year after was an even bigger shock. Moreover, the child and the mother were both undernourished and underweight. Certainly, younger brides mean younger pregnancies and greater complications that might even result in early death.

Let me share my own mother’s story. She was taken out of school in the ninth grade and married off to my father when she was 15. Now a mother of four, she often takes out her school books and relives the assignments she was given on her last day in school. I can tell from the partially washed out ink that she must have cried over the pages for several years. But she is just one case, the litany of this tradition is endless.

The law in Pakistan

In Pakistan, the marriage restraint Act 1929 regulates underage marriages. Under this aged Act, 16 years is currently the minimum marriageable age. If found violating the law, the parents can be fined 1,000 Pak rupees, a fine also set back in 1929.

With 200,000 rupees being an average estimated cost of a low profile wedding ceremony in Pakistan, a fine of Rs 1,000 is not a big deal.

Many, however, make the “arrangements” prior to the wedding. In a country where ruling politicians can have fake degrees, making fake birth certificates to increase the age of the girls and so to escape the legal consequences is not be a problem either.   

In Pakistan, 30 per cent of the marriages fall into the category of child marriage. That means, 30 per cent of all children cannot pursue further education because they get married and have children, have a greater tendency to suffer from health and emotional problems.

A widespread disease

Comparing the regional statistics you can see how bad the problem in South Asia, The ratio of child marriages in Bangladesh is very high. Recent UNICEF and Plan UK figures reveal that the rate of child marriage in Bangladesh is 66%, 47% in India and 39% in Afghanistan.  After South Asia, Africa is ranked second with the highest percentages of child marriages.

Regrettably, the problem is really widespread. I recently visited Middle East, where child brides are common, and got to hear a lot of stories from the locals I talked to.

One such incident was the horrific death of a 12-year-old Yemeni during childbirth some two years ago. Some raised their voices against child marriage as a consequence, but criticism soon died down, a characteristic common to the powerful but ephemeral sandstorms in the region.

The news of the marriage of an 11 year old girl to a 41 year old man, as his fourth wife, in Malaysia in 2010 managed to attract some attention. The marriage was ruled illegal not because of the age of the girl, but because the couple apparently did not follow Islamic law; the girl had still not reached puberty.

But since Muslim girls in Malaysia who are younger than 16 years of age are allowed to get married with the permission of an Islamic court, such cases never make it to the trial.

What can be done?

When Laxmi Sargara, 18, of Jaipur, India, in a ground breaking step, annulled her year old marriage, she must have felt relieved from the burden of an imposed relationship as much as her husband.

Describing the day when her parents broke the news of her impending marriage to her, Sargara explained they told her that she had been married since she was one and would now have to start living with her husband.

When they refused to help her end the marriage she got help from a local woman lawyer. Her annulment was granted on the same day as mass child marriages were celebrated in Rajhistan.

Human rights activists and legal experts believe that the only way to end underage marriages is to giving children mandatory basic school education. Educating the families about the repercussions of early marriages could be the next step. But until the families realise that the root cause of the problem lies within their homes and cultures, this will continue to haunt the lives of young girls, who will continuously be taken for granted. And that is the truth, whether you like it or not.

Author: Ayesha Hasan
Editor: Grahame Lucas


07.05.2012 | 15:16