Pakistan To Pass Bill Preventing Child Marriages

Pakistani Soldier

A bill designed to prevent child marriages in Pakistan’s most populated province has raised hope for protection of Christian girls and others from Muslims abducting and forcibly marrying and converting them, sources said.

The Punjab Province government on Thursday (April 25) submitted the draft of the Punjab Child Marriage Restraint Act, 2024 with the Punjab Home Department, which would raise the legal age for marriage for both boys and girls to 18 years; previously the age for girls was 16.

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Introduced by Member of Punjab Assembly Sarah Ahmad, who is also chairperson of the Child Protection & Welfare Bureau (CPWB), the bill would criminalize underage marriages. Anyone who marries a girl or boy under 18 or arranges such a marriage – including parents or guardians – would face two to three years in prison and a fine of between 100,000 Pakistani rupees (US$358) and 200,000 rupees (US$717).

Religious freedom advocates termed the bill a “big gain” in efforts to protect minor girls from sexual exploitation as they are forcibly converted and married, but they called for the law to be equally applied to cases of girls belonging to minority religions in the 96-percent Muslim country.

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“It has been a longstanding demand of the civil society to end the gender-based age discrimination in Punjab’s child marriage restraint act,” said Peter Jacob, executive director of research and advocacy organization the Center for Social Justice. “Raising the legal marriage age to 18 years for both boys and girls will help in preventing child marriages, but certain amendments are required to ensure that minority girls also get due coverage of the law.”

A veteran rights activist based in Lahore, Punjab Province, Jacob was awarded the U.S. State Department’s Religious Freedom Award earlier this year for his efforts to uphold human rights in Pakistan. He said the law should override all “special” laws and maxims related to determining of a girl’s age of maturity.

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“This is particularly important for the protection of underage minority girls who are victimized through forced conversions and marriages under the cover of ‘special’ laws,” Jacob told Christian Daily International-Morning Star News, referring to sharia (Islamic law) allowing girls attaining puberty to be considered adults.

Those who can file charges of child marriage under the bill include parents or guardians, neighbors, community members, teachers, members of local bodies, social workers, friends, imams, Nikah Khawan (marriage solemnizers) and Nikah (Islamic marriage certificate) registrars.

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