The rise and fall of CPLC
March 13, 2022
Child abuse – a “duty to report’
April 18, 2022

Eliminating Child Marriages

On October 13, 2020, a 13-year-old Christian girl was kidnapped, forced to marry a 44-year-old man, made to convert to Islam and given a new name of Arzoo Fatima. To provide credence to the crime, records were manufactured that fast-forwarded her age to 18 years and changed her religion to Islam. All this was achieved by fabricating fake affidavits and notary public attestations. Besides causing immense misery and runarounds, the ‘affidavits’ and ‘attestations’ act as legal crutches to fabricate every imaginable falsehood. One’s fundamental identity, such as age, dead or alive, married or divorced, religion, sect or date of birth can be readily altered by an abracadabra of stamps, seals and signatures.

Child marriages make a significant negative contribution to Pakistan’s two important maladies — the burgeoning population and the unending child abuse. Except for Sindh, where the minimum marriage age for girls is 18 years, all other provinces continue to follow the 1929 Marriage Restraint Act which allows girls to be married at the age of 16. It is worth noting that while the Pakistani Senate in 2019 passed a bill to raise the minimum age for marriage of girls to 18 years, the same was rejected by the National Assembly.

Two recent developments augur well for Pakistan. In October 2021 the Federal Shariat Court categorically declared that setting any minimum age limit for marriage by an Islamic state was not against Islam. In February 2022 it was followed by a brilliant judgement of Islamabad High Court that prohibited marriage of girls under the age of 18, even of their own free will. Thus there is nothing stopping Pakistan from standardising 18 years as the minimum age for marriage for boys and girls throughout the country.

A 2013 UNFPA report suggests that one in three girls in Pakistan is married before reaching the age of 18. Sadly this would continue to happen unless we plug the intentionally-designed loopholes in the law. Consider the following three ‘slippery slopes’ of the Sindh child Marriage Restraint Rules 2016 that permit the system to be easily circumvented.

1- “Any person solemnising a marriage must ensure that the bride and the bridegroom are aged 18 years or above by providing a signed ‘affidavit’ stating his satisfaction that the age of the contracting parties is not less than 18.” (The person solemnising the marriage has no way of knowing the correct age and would happily sign any ‘affidavit’ for a small exchange of cash).

2- “An ‘attested’ copy of CNIC of both contracting parties shall also be attached with the nikkahnama.” (easily bypassed by attaching an ‘attested’ copy of the CNIC of a close relative).

3. “If the CNIC of either party is not available, a medical certificate verifying the age may be made available, provided that the person providing the certificate shall sign and provide an ‘affidavit’ that he has satisfied himself about the age of the person examined.” (Highly vulnerable to individual judgment, bribe and influence.)

The Child Marriage Act and the Rules ought to be simplified and made foolproof. It must be mandatory for the bride and the groom to be above 18 and in possession of valid CNIC cards. The two of them should be required to visit the nearest Union Council / Cantonment Board to register the marriage by undergoing biometric tests to confirm that the CNICs belong to the same individuals. (If a telephone SIM calls for a biometric test, why not a marriage?)

A NADRA Certificate of Marriage (like the NCOC’s Vaccination Certificate) should be available for downloading from NADRA’s website within 24 hours of the marriage registration. It is this NADRA certificate of marriage that should be attached with each nikkahnama, eliminating the need for every type of affidavit, photocopy, medical certificate and attestation. If in 2015, Arvind Kejriwal’s Delhi government could abolish 200 types of affidavits, why not Pakistan?

Naeem Sadiq

The Express Tribune, March 27th, 2022.