On Monday, Pakistan's Senate passed a bill which proposed the marriageable age for girls, under the Child Marriage (Restraint) Act, 1929, be raised to 18. However, the bill would have to be approved by the National Assembly where it is likely to meet with severe opposition. Only then can it be passed at the provincial level.
According to the UN, at least one in three girls are married off in Pakistan before the age of 18. The Child Marriage (Restraint) Act, 1929 states that the legal age of marriage for girls is 16 whereas it is 18 for boys.
In India, the same law is known as the Sharda Act which was enacted in 1929. It originally stipulated that the marriageable age for girls would be 14; This, however, was amended and the age was raised to 18. Nevertheless, in Pakistan, the minimum age of marriage for girls continues to be 16. In fact, a study showed that at least 3 % girls in Pakistan are married off by the time they're 15, whereas 21 % girls are married before they turn 18.
A report by the UNICEF shows that Pakistan has the maximum number of child brides at a whopping 1,909,000.
According to reports, the Act which has been in place in Pakistan since 1929 has been amended once in 1961 when the minimum age was increased to 16. Yet, the Act is non-cognizable. This means that the police cannot make arrests in such cases without getting a warrant from the court.
In 2013, the Sindh Province took progressive measures to raise the age of marriage to 18 which was met with acute resistance from religious sects who deemed the move "anti-Islamic."
According to a report by the UN, there are a number of complex factors which help in perpetuating child marriage in Pakistan. For instance, girls living in rural areas are more vulnerable; for families living almost below the poverty line, marrying the girls off as soon as possible is a viable solution to the problem of economic hardship. Of course, the gender inequality prevalent in Pakistan doesn't make it easier.
The Guardian reports that other factors also play a crucial role. For instance, the ritual of Vani or Swara allows a family to marry off a girl in order to resolve debts or disputes or as punishment. A barter system of sorts, if you may. Similarly, the practice of watta satta, which essentially translates to "bride exchange", continues to haunt young brides in Pakistan.
It remains to be seen if the progressive motion will garner enough support from all sections of the Pakistan senate. Supporters have taken cues from laws in other countries like Oman or UAE; yet, the members of the cabinet are still divided on their opinions.