PAKISTAN - Child marriages are a major and disturbing problem in Pakistan and elsewhere. Eleven percent of the world's children will be married before the age of 15 -- amounting to over 2 million child brides. In Pakistan 7% of girls married are under the age of 15, according to UNICEF. This number may be higher as there are many unreported cases. However, there has been an increased effort to raise awareness and lower these numbers.
Former prime minister and UN education official Gordon Brown proposes "child marriage-free zones' in Pakistan. One of his concerns about child marriage is that not many girls are able to finish school. This leads to few women being able to be productive and influential members of society, which in turn makes it harder for them to help other girls escape forced marriage. Brown aims to break this cycle.
He wants teachers and girls to work together to fight child marriage. He wants girls to know their rights and feel empowered enough to stand up to those trying to force them into marriage. Brown is also working to raise global awareness and commitment. The UN is giving 10 million dollars and the EU is giving 100 million euros (about 138 million dollars) to the cause. The message they are trying to send is that it is important that all children need to be educated, and there is international support to make this happen.
The fight against child marriage in Pakistan also has internal support, notably from legislator Marvi Memon. Ms. Memon is a conservative politician and businesswoman, serving as the central and public figure of the Pakistan Muslim League presided by Nawaz Sharif. She's introduced a bill to Pakistan's National Assembly that calls for stricter punishments to those involved with child marriage.
Currently the penalty for arranging child marriage is only $10 and a month in jail. Memon wants to raise that to $1000 and a two-year jail sentence.
She's facing opposition from the Council of Islamic Ideology. The CII says that marriages of anyone who's reached puberty, regardless of age, are acceptable under Islamic law. According to them any laws restricting marriage of girls who've reached puberty, including the minor punishments already in place, contradict the teachings of the Koran.
With the help of Islamic scholars, Memon wants to fight back by showing that Islam is supportive of women. Child marriage has health risks because child brides often conceive shortly after marriage. With their bodies not ready for pregnancy, there are often complications involving both mother and child. It does not go against Islamic law to try to prevent this.
If the bill is passed, it may be hard to enforce. Even with official government support, Pakistani police may be hesitant to interfere with what for many is a culturally acceptable norm.
Child marriage is not an easy-fix problem. But with Brown's campaign for education and global awareness and Memon's fight for stricter consequences, there is hope for the future of Pakistani girls.