Opposition to Child Marriage in Pakistan Gains Momentum


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.

Fistula: The Scourge of Child Brides

Ayanna Nahmias, Editor-in-ChiefLast Modified: 22:40 PM EDT, 6 September 2011

Child Bride Streets of Calcutta by BrajeshwarIn many countries around the world, young girls are being forced into marriage by their families or society. These marriages are less about religious practices than the economic needs of the families into which these girls are born.

Across the continent of Africa, Middle East and Europe, marrying off young girls is a common practice and in the Amhara region of Ethiopia some girls are married as young as five years old. It is reported that close to half Amharan girls are married before their 15th birthday.

On November 2, 2010, Anna Nicholas reported in the Telegraph about a 10-year old Romanian girl who had given birth to a healthy baby in a hospital in Jerez de La Frontera in southwest Spain.  According to a 2010 poll conducted by Unicef over 64 million women around the world between the ages of 20-24 were married before the age of 18, and in the next ten years over 100 million girls who are under the age of 18 will be married.

Among the many adverse consequences of underage girls being married are a lack of education as most are forced to leave school if they were lucky enough to have had the opportunity to attend, decreased autonomy and ability to make decisions for themselves and their children. Additionally, girls aged 15-19 are twice as likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth than women aged 20-24, according to the United Nations.

According to the Mayo Clinic,  rectovaginal fistula are a form of injury caused during childbirth.  This type of injury include tears in the perineum that extend to the bowel and anal sphincter, the rings of muscle at the end of the rectum that helps hold in stool.  Complete pelvic bone development occurs around 21, so when girls whose hips are too small for the baby's head to pass through, it presses down on her pelvic bone, cutting off blood supply and causing the tissue to die. The resulting hole causes urinal or fecal incontinence.

Fistula affects 2 million women around the world, mostly in Africa, according to the World Health Organization.  In the West this embarrassing and unhealthy condition was virtually eradicated in the 19th century with the discovery of Caesarean sections.  Although, this procedure also has its opponents and risks, the quality of life for women who for medical reasons cannot deliver vaginally is greatly improved.

For women suffering from fistulas, the uncontrolled leakage of feces and urine often results in abandonment by their husbands and the inability to find another protector because they are deemed unclean.  A Kenyan woman was recently interviewed about the negative impact her fistula has had on her life.

She said "people would ask who is making that bad smell, coughing and covering their noses. So I was always isolating myself."  Since she was too poor to buy sanitary pads, she stuffed her underwear with rags but the feces still leaked onto her clothes, forcing her to wash them several times a day. She often doused herself in perfume to hide the smell and endured painful attempts by a midwife who tried to suture the hole four times without success.

After years of suffering shame and isolation, she was fortunate enough to receive an operation at Kenyatta National Hospital's 15-day "fistula camp" which resulted in her complete recovery and the reclamation of her life.


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