SINDH, Pakistan — As work on the Sustainable Development Goals continues, Pakistan has proposed to end forced marriages and child marriages, defined by UNICEF as marriage of an individual before age 18, by 2030.
New legislation in Sindh and Punjab, provinces of Pakistan, are indicators of progress toward the achievement of this goal.
In Sindh, a new law outlaws the marriage of children under the age of 18 regardless of gender. It also punishes those who perform underage marriages with a fine of 45,000 rupees ($760) and up to three years in jail. The bill under review in Punjab also raises the legal age of marriage.
Sindh has the highest rate of child marriage in Pakistan for any province, making the unanimous passage of this law a significant legal success.
Such legislation has been opposed by some religious organizations such as the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), one of Pakistan’s most influential religious bodies. The CII holds the position that girls are ready for marriage as soon as they reach puberty, and stated in April that the banning of child unions is anti-Islamic.
Despite vocal religious oppositions, a 2012 study performed by University of California San Diego researcher Anita Raj found that over the past 20 years, child marriage in the South Asian region has been declining. Between 1991 and 2007 the rates of marriage for girls under 14 fell by 61 percent in Pakistan.
Other countries studied included India, Bangladesh and Nepal, which witnessed decreased child marriage rates of 35 percent, 45 percent and 57 percent, respectively.
Raj also found that marriages of young women between the ages of 16 and 17 stayed the same in most regions, with an increase of 36 percent in Bangladesh. This indicates that there is a rising trend among families to delay marriage.
Potential causes for this shift include increased education for children, particularly young women, and raising awareness of the negative effects of early marriage and parenthood.
According to a 2006 survey, 36 percent of women between the ages of 20 and 24 were married before their 18th birthday, a rate that remained roughly the same in 2011. Before age 20, 48 percent were married, and 30 percent had given birth. In some areas, about a third of girls younger than 15 are married.
Each year, 14 million adolescents between 15 and 19 give birth, but complications relating to pregnancy and childbirth are one of the leading causes of death for these young women. Mothers under 15 are five times more likely than mothers in their 20s to die in childbirth. The chance of death within the first year of life for a child born to a woman under 18 is 60 percent greater than for a child born to a woman older than 19.
Most common among the poorest families, child marriage can contribute to the cycle of poverty. Early marriage prevents many women from finishing their education, and increases their risk of STDs and unwanted pregnancy. Girls married before the age of 19 are also more vulnerable to powerlessness in their relationship and abuse within their marriages.