The fate of KP’s bill against child marriage

  • Tariq Waheed
  • Mar 27, 2024

In July 2020, a deeply troubling incident in the Dir district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa sparked widespread media attention and civil unrest, after a twelve-year-old girl named Naila died under mysterious circumstances shortly after her marriage to a thirteen-year-old boy. The event lead to numerous protests against the practice of child marriages.

In this backdrop, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, then also in government, witnessed emotional appeals within the provincial assembly, pushing for legislative action to eradicate child marriage. A draft bill aimed at ending this practice was swiftly introduced but unfortunately lost momentum and was shelved.

Child marriage remains a pervasive social issue in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Advocates argue that decisive measures, such as setting the legal age of marriage for females at 18 and enforcing stringent penalties for violations, are critical steps towards its eradication. However, despite concerted efforts over the past eleven years, the Child Marriage Act amendment bill has languished in a legislative limbo, circulating between the assembly, its various committees and their consultations, without achieving substantive progress.

The existing legal framework, rooted in the British-era Marriage Restraint Act of 1929, sets the marriageable age at 16 for girls and 18 for boys, with penalties limited to a fine of Rs1000 and a possible one-month imprisonment.

This is starkly outdated, especially when compared to progressive strides made in other provinces such as Sindh, where legislation passed in 2013 not only equalized the marriageable age for both genders at 18 but also introduced more severe penalties for offenders, classifying child marriage as a non-bailable offence. Efforts in Punjab also saw legislative action in 2015, where the age for girls was maintained at 16, but penalties were heightened.

An alignment with the United Nations Children’s Rights Charter, which classifies individuals under 18 as children, is essential for both genders in marriage laws according to activists like Imran Takkar.

Historically, attempts to tackle child marriage in KP have been met with resistance and procedural delays. Initiatives launched during both the Awami National Party government in 2012 and the subsequent PTI administration encountered opposition from various quarters, including religious groups and political members, stalling progress. Even resolutions passed by female assembly members in 2016 calling for the marriageable age to be raised to 18 faced obstructions.

In 2019, attempts to legislate against child marriage were halted by concerns over religious sensitivities, leading to the establishment of a committee for further consultation. However, progress remained elusive, with former Minister Shaukat Yousafzai acknowledging the lack of follow-through on these efforts.

Despite these challenges, the issue was revisited in June 2021 by PPP member Nighat Orkazai, who introduced a private bill to the assembly, reigniting debates and consultations. Shabina Ayaz, Resident Director of the Aurat Foundation, refutes the notion that religious obstacles are insurmountable, highlighting the societal and traditional barriers that further complicate legislative reforms.

As PTI assumes government for a record third term in the province, the longstanding draft bill, with an emphasis on raising the legal age of marriage for females to 18, awaits a decisive fate. Would it be able to confront potential opposition this time? Only time will tell

Tariq Waheed Opinion

Tariq Waheed

The author is a senior journalist and Bureau Chief for HUM News for Khyber Pukhtunkhwa. He posts on 'X' as @tarikwaheed

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