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Childhoods unbound: Rising above tradition

Nelson Mandela’s poignant assertion, “Any society which does not care for its children is no nation at all,” serves as a stark backdrop to the persistent challenge of child marriage in Pakistan. Child marriage, defined by UNICEF as marriage occurring at an age younger than 18 years, continues to be a prevalent and deeply rooted issue in the country, affecting millions of young girls every year. Despite efforts to eradicate it, the practice of marrying off children at a young age persists, perpetuating the cycle of poverty and limiting opportunities for personal and economic development.
According to a UNICEF report from 2021, around 18% of girls in Pakistan are married before the age of 18, with 3% being married before the age of 15. The legal age of marriage in Pakistan was set at 16 for girls and 18 for boys under the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929. However, this act was out of step with most of the countries in South Asia, and the legal age of marriage was not uniform across the country. Efforts to increase the legal age of marriage to 18 for both boys and girls have been made, such as the proposed Balochistan Child Marriage Prohibition Act and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Child Marriage Restraint Bill. However, these efforts have faced challenges and resistance, hindering their implementation.
It is disheartening to note that archaic customs, such as the prearrangement of marriages from infancy, continue to prevail in many parts of our society, perpetuating a cycle of inequality and societal harm. The concept of ‘baat pukki karna’, or informal engagement of children for matrimony, remains deeply embedded, often resulting in irreparable consequences for the innocent victims.
These widespread beliefs come at a heavy cost, resulting in elevated population growth rates, increased infant mortality, and compromised reproductive health among women. The detrimental impacts of early marriages on the physical and emotional well-being of both the mother and child cannot be overstated, leading to far-reaching implications that reverberate through the very foundation of our society.
Consequences of child marriage for females are severe and long-lasting, like compromise girl’s development, resulting in early pregnancy, social isolation, interrupted schooling, limited opportunities for career advancement, and increased vulnerability to domestic violence.
Factors contributing to the persistence of child marriage in Pakistan include low levels of parental education and family income, strict adherence to socio-cultural norms, and misinterpretations of religious teachings concerning marriage. Weak enforcement of relevant laws and a lack of awareness among legal authorities have also been highlighted as contributing factors perpetuating the prevalence of child marriage in the region.
In light of these profound insights, there is an urgent need for comprehensive reforms aimed at enhancing educational awareness, encouraging the empowerment of young girls, and addressing the complex interplay between religious principles and cultural traditions. Encouraging skill development opportunities, increasing the role of religious leaders, poverty alleviation efforts, and the strict implementation of relevant laws are imperative to curtail the frequency of child marriages in the region.
In our collective pursuit of justice and equality, prioritizing the protection and empowerment of our youth is paramount. By advocating for comprehensive reforms and fostering a society that values education and dignity, we can pave the way for a future where every child can aspire to achieve their dreams, free from the constraints of regressive customs and societal pressures. The battle against child marriage is not just a struggle for the present; it is an investment in a future that embraces equality and opportunity for all.
The prevalence of child marriage in Pakistan is a pressing issue that demands immediate attention and concerted efforts from all stakeholders to bring about meaningful and lasting change.