Pakistani Christians laud Senate’s approval of bill increasing minimum marriage age for Christians to 18 years

By Asher John |
Child marriage in Pakistan
Christians applaud the progress on legislation to protect boys and girls from underage marriage, especially those from underprivileged households. | YouTube Screenshot / VOA

Pakistani Christians have lauded the Senate of Pakistan for approving the Christian Marriage (Amendment) Bill 2023 that increases the minimum marriage age for Christians from 16 to 18 years.

The private member bill was presented in the Upper House of Parliament by outgoing Christian Senator Kamran Michael on Monday seeking an amendment in Sub-Section 1 of Section 60 of the Christian Marriage Act 1872 wherein the marriageable age for Christian boys was set at “sixteen” while for girls it was “thirteen”. Michael proposed increasing the marriage age for both boys and girls to eighteen years.

“It is the function of the state to protect the inviolable dignity of children as their basic human rights and to protect children being married before the age of maturity as their basic rights to education and other ancillary rights would otherwise be infringed,” the statement of objectives of the bill reads.

“The main purpose of this enactment is to protect children from being sexually abused and to secure children their basic fundamental rights as enshrined in the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and the marriageable age in the other laws prevailing in the country,” it continues.

Christian Daily International has learned that the bill was first introduced in the Senate by Michael on January 30, 2023, and was referred to the Senate’s Standing Committee on Interior for consideration.

The bill was included in the agenda for the committee meetings held on March 8, 2023, April 2023 and June 8, 2023, respectively but surprisingly Senator Michael did not appear before the committee on all three occasions despite notices.

According to a report presented to the Senate by the committee’s chairman Senator Mohsin Aziz, the committee considered the bill in the absence of the mover (Michael) in its meeting held on June 8, 2023, and recommended increasing the marriage age for boys from 16 to 18 and for girls from 13 to 16.

According to Standing Order 2.23 of the committee, “Where the Mover whose legislative or non-legislative business is referred from the House to the Committee, fails to attend two consecutive committee meetings in which his/her business is taken up on the agenda, the Committee may, if the Mover absents himself from the third consecutive meeting, despite telephonic intimations and notices, the said matter may be taken up and disposed off in absence of the Mover and a report in this context be laid in the House within the stipulated time period for which the matter was originally referred.”

During the Senate proceedings on Monday, Senator Michael requested Chairman Sadiq Sanjrani to disregard the standing committee’s recommendation and put his original bill for voting, which was accepted.

“All the church denominations have given their consent for increasing the marriage age for Christian boys and girls to 18. The bill does not conflict with biblical injunctions as the Bible also recommends that both partners should be mature and wise at the time of marriage,” Michael told the Senate proceedings.

Church leaders and Christian rights activists welcomed the passing of the amendment to the Act, saying it was long overdue.

“It was the community’s longstanding demand to increase the age limit for marriage to 18 years for both Christian boys and girls. We hope that the incoming National Assembly will also approve the Bill passed by the Senate. This legislation will curb early marriages of minor girls, especially in rural areas, and act as a safeguard for their health, education, and overall wellbeing,” said Bishop Azad Marshall, president of the Church of Pakistan.

Marshall added that the bill also represented a crucial advancement in protecting young Christian girls from forced conversions and sexual abuse.

“We hope that the incoming government will make necessary legislation to criminalize forced conversions of minority girls,” he told Christian Daily International.

Bishop of Multan Diocese of the Church of Pakistan, Leo Roderick Paul echoed Bishop Marshall’s opinion, but said that several other amendments were needed in the Act to address the present-day challenges facing the community.

“All the denominations, including the Roman Catholic Church, have worked very hard to prepare a comprehensive bill on overhauling the Christian personal laws. The bill was submitted to the law department for consideration last year but I’m not aware of its current status,” he told Christian Daily International.

Bishop Leo, who was the chairman of the joint church committee formed to review the personal laws, said the amendments proposed by the committee related to key issues including the dissolution of Christian marriage and definition of “Christian”.

“All the denominations have unanimously agreed that a Christian marriage cannot be dissolved automatically without following the due legal process even if a Christian man or woman renounced their Christian faith. Moreover, we also agreed that a Christian would be defined as someone who believes in the Apostles’ Creed,” he said.

Prominent rights activist Peter Jacob told Christian Daily International that they had been advocating for enhancing the minimum marriage age to 18 for a long time.

“This is a step in the right direction because many Christian girls, particularly those belonging to underprivileged households, are married off at an early age,” he said.

Jacob, who heads the research and advocacy group Center for Social Justice, said the bill drafted by the joint church committee could be considered a completely new law.

“That draft bill is very elaborate but till the time it is presented in parliament for discussion, this amendment can be seen as a positive move that will help pave the way for more legislation,” he concluded.