Bill to outlaw child marriages advances in Pakistan

Muskan Salman was kidnapped on March 11, 2024, in Sindh Province, Pakistan.
Muskan Salman was kidnapped on March 11, 2024, in Sindh Province, Pakistan. | (Christian Daily International-Morning Star News)

A bill to criminalize child marriages in Punjab Province, Pakistan made significant headway on Wednesday (June 5) when the Standing Committee of the Cabinet on Law approved the legislation.

The Punjab Child Marriage Restraint Act, 2024 would also put the legal marriage age for both genders at 18 years; the current minimum is 16 for females and 18 for male.

Member of Punjab Assembly Sarah Ahmad, chairperson of the Child Protection & Welfare Bureau, passionately advocated for the protection of girls, urging the committee to pass the bill without making any changes, said journalist Hassaan Ahmed, secretary of the Punjab Assembly Press Gallery Reporters Association.

“The bill will now be presented in the Punjab Assembly for voting after which it will be enacted as law,” Ahmed told Christian Daily International-Morning Star News.

In comments to reporters afterward, Ahmad expressed her gratitude to Punjab’s first woman chief minister, Maryam Nawaz Sharif, saying she was fully committed to safeguarding the future of young girls.

“The Punjab government is committed to following the orders of the Lahore High Court, which directed authorities to end the gender-based age discrimination in the provincial child marriage laws,” she said.

Lahore High Court Justice Shahid Karim on April 15 declared as “discriminatory” Punjab Province’s Child Marriage Act of 1929, which fixed 18 and 16 years as legal ages for marriage for boys and girls respectively.

The verdict arose from petitioner Azka Wahid seeking amendments to the Child Marriage Act to avert harmful gender distinctions in accordance with the Constitution of Pakistan’s guarantee of equal rights for men and women.

Under the bill, anyone who marries a girl or boy under 18 or arranges such a marriage – including parents or guardians – would face two to three years in prison and a fine of between 100,000 Pakistani rupees (US$358) and 200,000 rupees (US$717).

Those who can file charges of child marriage under the bill include parents or guardians, neighbors, community members, teachers, members of local bodies, social workers, friends, imams, Nikah Khawan (marriage solemnizers) and Nikah (Islamic marriage certificate) registrars.

At the time of marriage registration, the marriage solemnizer, secretary of the union council and marriage registrar would check the computerized national identity card (CNIC) of the girl or boy, passport, educational certificate or other documents proving both are at least 18 years old.

Attested copies of these documents would be required to be attached with the application of marriage certificate, under the legislation.

“Violation of law or omission shall constitute an offense punishable under Section 6 of Punjab Child Marriage Restraint Act, 2024,” the bill states. “In case of any dispute regarding determination of age of any of the parties to marriage, the court shall determine the age on the basis of birth certificate, educational certificate or other necessary documents after hearing the case.”

In the absence of these documents, the age of both parties would be determined through medical examination, it states.

As soon as a case of child marriage is reported, police and courts would take notice, and a court can try the case even before marriage takes place, under the bill.

Violators would be subject to arrest by police employing an irrevocable warrant. Under the Code of Criminal Procedure 1898, the family court would have powers of Judicial Magistrate of First Class. Those convicted by family courts may appeal to sessions courts.

‘A Big Gain’

Pakistan’s Islamic clergy play the biggest role in underage marriages involving minority girls, particularly Christians and Hindus, according to rights advocates. Islamic clerics have fiercely opposed legislation against forced conversions in Sindh Province, and they also censured a federal bill seeking to curb forced conversions in 2021.

Religious freedom advocates have termed the proposed bill a “big gain” in efforts to protect minor girls from sexual exploitation as they are forcibly converted and married, but they called for the law to be equally applied to cases of girls belonging to minority religions in the 96-percent Muslim country.

“Raising the legal marriage age to 18 years for both boys and girls will help in preventing child marriages, but certain amendments are required to ensure that minority girls also get due coverage of the law,” Peter Jacob, executive director of research and advocacy organization the Center for Social Justice, previously told Christian Daily International-Morning Star News when the bill was introduced in the assembly.

He said the law should override all “special” laws and maxims related to determining of a girl’s age of maturity.

“This is particularly important for the protection of underage minority girls who are victimized through forced conversions and marriages under the cover of ‘special’ laws,” Jacob said, referring to sharia (Islamic law) allowing girls attaining puberty to be considered adults.

Pakistan ranked seventh on Open Doors’ 2024 World Watch List of the most difficult places to be a Christian, as it was the previous year.