No child’s play

By Zubeida Mustafa

FOUZIA is 13 and is employed by a working mother of two children. Fouzia is the victim of oppression on three counts. She performs the duties of an adult woman, which would be classified as child labour. She is not attending school as is compulsory for children from five to 16 years of age under Article 25-A of the Constitution.

Above all, she will soon be another example of early marriage as she is said to be engaged. The wedding will take place as soon as she has earned enough for her dowry. In the process, Fouzia has been robbed of her childhood and an education.

These deprivations do not bother this young girl’s family. Their sociocultural norms and, according to many, poverty have landed her in this ugly situation. According to Unesco, from 1987 to 2005, early marriage was the fate of nearly 32 per cent of all children in Pakistan.

Scepticism surrounds the implementation of child marriage laws.

This problem is a grave one as it has an adverse impact on maternal health, the infant mortality rate, children’s education, child-rearing practices, rights of children, empowerment of women and, above all, the future generations of Pakistan. It is, therefore, commendable that the Indus Resource Centre — with Oxfam’s support — has launched a project to address the issue in two districts of Sindh.

The IRC is eminently qualified for this advocacy work by virtue of its experience in similar projects of a social nature. It has been successful in its campaigns — albeit in limited areas where it has schools and access to communities whose confidence it enjoys.

Why is child marriage so common in Pakistan? Basically, it is a misguided approach to female sexuality, strongly entrenched sociocultural norms (often associated with practices such as honour killing) and religious beliefs in a patriarchal society that encourages many parents to marry off their daughters at a young age.

Generally, there is the additional factor of widespread ignorance of the rights of children. In our society, where the overall status of women is low, matrimony for their girl child becomes the first goal of parents. In their desperation, they often arrange obviously ill-matched unions which ruin the couples’ lives.

It is the girl who is the real victim of this obscurantist practice. She is younger and has to pay a heavier price than the groom who may be much older if the matrimonial arrangement is a result of now illegal customs such as swara. Among the first to be sacrificed are the girl’s education and health which in turn rob her of the opportunity to achieve economic empowerment and the advantages that go with it.

The widespread prevalence of child marriages is a clear indication of the poor status of women in Pakistan. The problem of child marriage can be most effectively tackled in the context of the empowerment of women. Since this requires a holistic approach, all aspects of a woman’s life must be addressed if an impact is to be made.

The IRC should be able to achieve some results as it is already closely linked with communities through its school infrastructure. Moreover, the Life Skills Based Education it is imparting has already produced results as IRC has been addressing such issues at the social level in its school programme.

What about the government? Of course, it has a big responsibility in averting child marriage as in many cases legal intervention is needed. Thus the child marriage restraint laws of Sindh and Punjab can land the parents in prison and require them to pay a hefty fine if they marry off their offspring under the age of 18 in the former and 16 in the latter province. But few people have been arrested under the law, leaving legal experts and feminists sceptical about the law and its implementation.

Although a sound legal framework is essential to regulate society, the thrust has to be on advocacy for social change for which structures must be created. While a sound law making child marriage illegal is essential, the focus needs to be on the social and cultural dimensions by creating awareness among people about child rights and the status of women. Hence schools and women’s groups are the best place to create an opinion against child marriages.

Again, there is a lot of talk about poverty being the root cause of this evil. But poverty is per se not the cause of many of the anti-social practices attributed to it. Poverty has many faces due to its attendant traits which are the root cause of many problems. Thus, generally speaking, the poor and underprivileged also lack education, are in bad health and have large families. These features combine to make them conservative and resistant to change. But that does not mean that quite a few among the wealthy do not have similar weaknesses.

Source: Dawn