On child protection and child marriage | Political economics

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All of the headline-grabbing child marriage cases have one thing in common: a situation that reveals that somewhere the system is failing to protect and protect children. The Dua Zehra case has once again brought the issues of consent, free will, forced marriage, grooming and disappointed parents into the spotlight in crowded courtrooms and in front of a dozen media microphones. It has also brought to the fore a heated debate over whether to believe a young couple’s love story and validate it or side with parents seeking justice against the alleged kidnappings and marriage of ‘children. From these debates, it seems that law and politics are secondary and that the court of public opinion, YouTube and self-proclaimed religious scholars are the first to decide what we think about this case.

What we keep most silent about is what the law, policies and guidelines say about child marriage. What existing policies promote childhood development, including safe spaces, education, and imparting essential life skills? How does the system react if a child marriage takes place? What are our child protection policies? What are the responsibilities of the court, police and provincial child protection units when such cases come before them? What specific policies exist for vulnerable children, especially girls? While we recognize that adolescence is an important time of rapid change, where young people adopt adult behaviors, we must also accept that they may be vulnerable when trying to exercise autonomy under certain rules. social. Therefore, a framework in terms of law or policy that provides us with a broad direction within which we operate is essential. It cannot be left to social media and arbitrary rules of families and society, especially when we see cases of forced marriage, denial of education and other harmful practices.

Pakistan is a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which recognizes anyone under the age of 18 as a child. The Child Marriage Restriction Act states that a girl can marry at 16 and a boy at 18. Only in Sindh is the marriageable age 18 for both men and women. Federal and state laws provide penalties for those who allow child marriage or a man to marry an underage girl. However, the laws do not declare a marriage void once it has taken place. This means that the law is simply preventative in nature; many argue that it is a law without teeth. In other words, the law is effective in preventing a child marriage, but once a marriage has taken place, anyone can guess how things will go further. Some parents remain silent so as not to attract attention and allow a marriage to continue even if it violates family rules and breaks the law. Others, like Dua Zehra’s parents, have chosen to speak out and take legal action. Because the law is silent on the status of an existing child marriage, societal rules and inconsistent interpretations by judges, as seen in various child marriage cases before the courts, occupy a place. central.

On child protection and child marriage

These include treating children in family courts as adults and not as children. In child marriage cases, judges are often faced with situations where girls claim to have married of their own free will. Here, the justice system automatically disassociates the child from childish behaviors, such as innocence and being more vulnerable to outside influence and control. In child marriage cases, some courts do not apply the usual best interests of the child principle, which is otherwise applied to family court cases for custody and guardianship hearings. . Most courts also fail to order child protection units or the police to apply the rules that would apply to a child in the justice system, those to protect him, keep him safe between hearing dates, to ensure rapid conclusions and, if necessary, to set up an expert and independent group to dialogue with the child. Policewomen were questioned for their impartiality in the Dua Zehra case. In such situations, there must be alternatives for the court to consider, including engagement with the relevant child protection unit to appoint social or caseworkers for the girl. Girls are treated as women in cases where marriage is at issue, leading to ‘routine adult procedures’ and silence on the welfare and protection of the child in question. The court also allows for societal biases that apply to women exercising their autonomy and will over a girl child claiming an early marriage was entered into with consent. This is not only detrimental to the girl in question, but could also lead to unfair findings by the court.

Political will on the subject has been inconsistent at best. The glaring void left by the system in terms of policy or rules on how to deal with child marriage has led to arbitrary and haphazard approaches by the courts and unprofessional and irrational approaches by the police . Policymakers must recognize the link between child marriage and population growth, the continuing cycle of poverty, greater vulnerability to domestic violence, higher risk of fistula among young girls who give birth, and nutritional deprivation and cognitive impairment in infants born to young mothers. They must then take bold and proactive steps to address it, including creating opportunities for young girls to reach their full potential, beyond marriage and childbirth.

Evidence suggests that while marriage of children under 18 decreased from 21% to 18.3%, marriage of children under 15 increased slightly from 3% to 3.6%. However, these are not hard numbers. The lack of reliable data leads to institutional reluctance to tackle the problem and its far-reaching negative consequences. If we want a future where young people (the largest demographic group in the country) are empowered to move us forward in terms of economic and social development, we must address children through policies and dialogues and set directions. on how children are protected in formal and informal settings. systems.


The author is a lawyer and consultant. Twitter: @BenazirJatoi


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