Pakistan’s Senate, its upper house of legislature, on Monday passed an amendment to the Child Marriage (Restraint) Act, 1929, raising the marriageable age for women to 18. The same will now be debated by the National Assembly, the lower house.
The Sharda Act, as it is known in India, was originally enacted by the Imperial Legislative Council in 1929 after reformist Har Bilas Sharda and several women’s groups exerted pressure on the colonial government.
While the original Act stipulated 14 as the marriageable age for women, in independent India this age was increased to 18 after an amendment in 1978 and by the passing of the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act in 2006.
Pakistan, however, has followed a different course.
The Act in Pakistan
The Act has been amended only once in 1961 by the Muslim Family Laws Ordinance, when the marriageable age for women was raised to 16. However, the Act remains non-cognizable, meaning that the police cannot make arrest without seeking a warrant from the court.
Although national politicians continued to resist reform for decades, a breakthrough occurred in 2010 when the country’s 18th Amendment deleted the Concurrent List, giving Pakistan’s provinces the power to legislate on the subject.
Consequently, the Sindh province passed a progressive law in 2013, raising the age to 18 and making the offence of child marriage cognizable, non-bailable, and non-compoundable. The Punjab province soon followed, and in 2015 gave its police force more powers to deter the practice.
The remaining provinces– Baluchistan, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, and the Islamabad Capital Territory still do not have their own laws, and continue to be under the same colonial-era Act.
Since the age has still not been increased to 18, the Pakistani version of the Act contravenes the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), of which the country is a signatory. The Convention considers any human being under the age of 18 to be a child.
The current amendment aims to remove this anomaly, introduce stricter punishments, and make the offence cognizable.
Prevalence of child marriage in Pakistan
According to a Gallup poll, 1.9 crore people in the country (13% of the population) are estimated to have started living with their first partner when they were younger than 18. Also, one in four women (24.7%) were married before they turned 18, compared with 1.4% of men.
Like other developing countries, Pakistan continues to pay a heavy price due to health issues arising due to child marriage, such as high maternal mortality.
Roadblocks to the current amendment
The amendment has witnessed stiff resistance from conservative elements in the country, who have called the Bill anti-Islamic. Islamic scripture permits marriage with a woman who has reached the age of puberty.
Although cleared by the Senate, it faces a serious challenge in the National Assembly, as two members of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s own cabinet have opposed the move. Former leader Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N party is also divided, although Bilawal Bhutto’s PPP supports the move.
Supporters have sought to strengthen their case by giving the example of other Muslim countries such as Jordan, Oman, and the UAE who have enacted similar modern laws.