No Innocent Bystanders Here—New Law Cracks Down on Child Marriage, Clerics Included

Clerics who officiate child marriages in Pakistan can face prison time and fines.

Young Pakistani brides at a mass wedding ceremony in Karachi. (Photo: Asif Hassan/Getty Images)

Mar 20, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

Child marriage may be illegal in Pakistan, but it’s still a fairly common practice, and young girls are often married to much older men once they reach puberty. Although the country as a whole prohibits marriage for girls under the age of 16 and boys under 18, recent legislation in one province is imposing more severe punishments for those who break the law.

An amendment to the Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929—which, despite its name, didn’t go into effect until 1939—was passed earlier this month in Punjab, the country’s most populous province. Parents who arrange underage marriages now face increased fines, and for the first time in this region, clerics who perform child marriage ceremonies face the same punishments: a fine of up to 50,000 rupees ($490) and six months in jail. That’s 50 times higher than the previous fine of 1,000 rupees ($10) and one month in jail.

“The Act has been enacted to curb the menace of child marriages prevalent in the country and to save the women from exploitation,” Punjab Law Minister Mujtaba Shuja-ur-Rehman told a Pakistani news site.

More than 700 million women alive today were child brides, UNICEF reports. Almost half of all instances of child marriage occur in South Asia, with 20 percent of children in Pakistan married by the time they reach 18 and 3 percent married before the age of 15, according to figures compiled in 2013.

Although boys are sometimes married as children, young girls are most often the victims. Thanks to religious doctrine that promotes the traditional practice, along with gender biases in society that devalue a woman’s worth, girls as young as five have headed down the aisle. Extreme poverty can also play a large role in a young girl’s early marriage—child brides are most common among poor and rural communities, where marrying a girl off can mean payment in exchange, as well as one less mouth to feed.

But not only are these children incapable of consenting to marriage; the practice often perpetuates the cycle of poverty. As young girls are plucked from childhood, they’re commonly deprived of higher education and forced to become young parents. They’re more likely to bear more children than those who marry later in life, and receive less medical care.

Child marriage has slowly declined in recent years, down from 31 percent in 2000 to 26 percent in 2010 globally. But given population growth, that 700 million figure won’t drop unless progress accelerates.

The laws against child marriage vary in each of Pakistan’s four provinces. The Punjab province is the second to punish those who officiate the ceremonies.

While Punjab’s progress is a step in the right direction, laws in the Sindh province are even more aggressive: Both participants are required to be 18 or older regardless of gender, and those violating the order can receive up to three years in prison and a fine of 45,000 rupees ($718).

The remaining two provinces, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, still follow the 1929 act, with minor consequences for those who violate the law.