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Islam, Women and Feminism ( 3 March 2014, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Stop Child Marriages, Please


By Sarmad Ali

March 03, 2014

Child marriages in Africa, some parts of Asia, Latin America and Oceania are driven due to poverty, illiteracy, culture, tradition, bride price, dowry, religious and social pressure, and even the fear of remaining unmarried

Child marriages were common in human history. Princess Emilia of Saxony, who was the daughter of Duke Henry IV of Saxony and his wife Catherine of Mecklenburg, in 1533, at the age of 16 years, married George the Pious, Margrave of Brandenburg-Ansbach, and then 48 years old. Before modern history, child marriage was common everywhere in the world but, with the advent of the 20th century, immense decline has been observed around the globe. It is noteworthy to mention that, although the ratio of child marriages is declining across the world, some countries in Africa and Asia still allow child marriages due to various reasons.

Nancy Demand of Birth, Death and Motherhood in Classical Greece fame provides that in ancient and medieval societies, girls would be betrothed at or before puberty. Nancy Demand further goes on to explain that, in ancient Greece, early wedding and motherhood for girls was encouraged. Even boys were encouraged to marry before reaching the age of competency. With an average life expectancy between 40 to 45 years, early marriages and teenage motherhood were typical. In Ancient Rome, girls married above the age of 12 and boys above 14. In the Middle Ages, under English Civil laws that were derived from Roman laws, marriage before the age of 16 was common. In Imperial China, child marriage was the norm.

At first glance, it is pertinent to first find out what is meant by child marriage in plain words. The UNICEF report of 2011 defines child marriage as a formal marriage or informal union of individuals before reaching the age of competency, which is normally 18 years. In 2013, the first United Nations Human Rights Council resolution against child, early and forced marriages was adopted. It recognises child marriage as a human rights violation and pledges to eliminate the practice as part of the UN’s post-2015 global development agenda. Child marriage is observed in almost every country in Africa, and Asia except some. It is a reality for boys and girls both but girls are the most affected by the practice, most of whom are in poor socioeconomic situations.

As I stated above, Princess Emilia of Saxony got married at the age of 16 to Margrave of Brandenburg who was 48 years old. Here, I can place my opinion with the context of this example that in child marriages, one marriage partner, usually the girl, is less than 18-years-old due to the importance placed on female virginity. It is fair to put forward that child marriages in Africa, some parts of Asia, Latin America and Oceania are driven due to poverty, illiteracy, culture, tradition, bride price, dowry, religious and social pressure, and even the fear of remaining unmarried. In the following paragraph, I will consider the facts and figures of child marriages by region but more consideration will be given to India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

UNICEF, in 2012, revealed that child marriages were common around the world but that backward and economically unsound countries observed child marriages much more in contrast to European countries and the US. For instance, the marriageable age in Scotland is 16 and no parental consent is required. As with the US, cohabitation is observed in the UK. According to a 2005 study, 4.1 percent of all girls in the 15 to 19 age group in the UK were cohabiting (living in an informal union) while 8.9 percent of all girls in that age group admitted to having been in a cohabitation relation (child marriage per UNICEF definition), before the age of 18. Over four percent of all underage girls in the UK were teenage mothers. Now, coming back to the main purpose of this article, which is to consider child marriages in Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh, it is therefore noteworthy to mention that, according to two 2013 reports published by UNICEF, over 50 percent of all marriages in Pakistan involve girls who are less than the age of competency. Another report by UNICEF claims that 70 percent of girls in Pakistan are married off before the age of 16.  The exact number of child marriages in Pakistan below the age of 13 is unknown but they are rising, according to the United Nations.

Andrew Bushell claims the rate of marriage of eight to 13-year-old girls exceeds 50 percent in the northwest regions of Pakistan. Another custom in Pakistan, called Vani, involves village elders solving family disputes or settling unpaid debts by marrying off girls. The average marriage age of Swara girls is between five and nine. Similarly, the custom of Watta Satta has been cited as a cause of child marriages in Pakistan. According to the Population Council, 35 percent of all females in Pakistan become mothers before they reach the age of 18 and 67 percent have experienced pregnancy out of which 69 percent have given birth before they reach the age of 19. Less than four percent of married girls below the age of 19 had some say in choosing her spouse; over 80 percent were married to a near or distant relative.

Child marriage rates in Bangladesh are amongst the highest in the world. Every two out of three marriages involve children. According to statistics from 2005, 45 percent of women then between 25 and 29 had been married by the age of 15 in Bangladesh. According to the State of the World’s Children, 2009 report, 63 percent of all women aged 20 to 24 were married before they were 18. The ministry of women and children’s affairs is making progress in increasing women’s education and employment opportunities. This, combined with specific education about child marriage and cooperation with religious leaders, is hoped to decrease child marriage. On the other hand, A UNICEF discussion paper determined that 79.6 percent of Muslim girls in Nepal, 69.7 percent of girls living in hilly regions irrespective of religion and 55.7 percent of girls living in other rural areas, are all married before the age of 15. Girls who were born into the highest wealth quintile marry about two years later than those from the other quintiles.

In culmination, it is submitted that child marriage is a reality and there is a need to enact laws that prohibit child marriages. This child marriage ratio is much higher in the subcontinent but even exists in Europe and the US. It is further said that child marriage is a violation of human rights in the advanced world. The constitution of Pakistan demands equality and promises no discrimination at all but child marriages happen in Pakistan every day, which shows that the social structure of Pakistan has not reached the point where it considers child marriages to be prohibited unions. I further contend that this should be stopped on an urgent basis and stakeholders must take a positive and effective part ensuring no child marriages in Pakistan.