Child bride
Every 20 minutes, a woman dies in Pakistan of maternity-related complications and that out of every 100 females 40 percent are married below the age of 18. Photo for illustrative purpose only Image Credit: Social media

Islamabad: Citizens of Pakistan have criticised Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s (PTI) Members of the National Assembly (MNAs) for rejecting a bill banning underage marriages.

The bill was rejected by voting in a meeting of the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Law & Justice held on August 21.

PTI MNA Riaz Fatyana was in the chair while another MNA of the party Dr Ramesh Kumar was the mover of the bill.

Opposition to a bill — which was passed by the Sindh Assembly in 2014 and was widely accepted in society — came from PTI and the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) parliamentarians while Pakistan People’s Party MNAs and Dr Kumar voted in its favour.

In May, Dr Kumar presented the bill in the National Assembly. The bill seeks to set the minimum marriageable age in Pakistan at 18.

The bill, however, drew uproar from the party’s own MNAs and also from the JUI-F and the Speaker National Assembly Asad Qaiser had to refer it to the National Assembly Committee on Law and Justice.

Silent opposition

While talking to Gulf News, Dr Kumar said in Wednesday’s Standing Committee meeting it was decided that the bill should be passed or rejected through voting.

“When the voting was about to begin, I noticed the PTI MNAs started leaving the committee one by one. I asked them not to leave as we needed votes for the approval of the bill in the standing committee but unfortunately they left and those opposing the bill were in majority,” said a disappointed Dr Kumar.

In this way they showed their silent opposition to the bill, he added.

Even within the cabinet, ministers are divided on the bill. Human Rights Minister Dr Shireen Mazari argued in support of the bill and asked the chair to refer it to the committee concerned, while Religious Affairs Minister Noorul Haq Qadri and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Ali Mohammad Khan spoke against it.

Chairperson of National Council on Status of Women Khawar Mumtaz at a report launch on Friday said the members who opposed the bill needed to understand the sensitivity of the issue. How can we expect children to take decision on marriage at that tender age, she asked.

Valerie Khan, a women’s rights activist, said it was irresponsible, ill-informed and disappointing for elected representatives who claim to protect the most vulnerable to reject the bill while supporting an agenda of development in the country.

This act of the parliamentarians rejecting a ban on child marriages amounts to supporting bigotry and darkness, she added.

Iftikhar Mubarik, executive director of Search For Justice, an NGO working to strengthen child rights and protection work in Pakistan, said it is very strange that any child below the 18 years is not eligible to vote, obtain a Computerised National Identity Card or driving license but can be married before that age, and the law is protecting this.

Article 25 of the Constitution of Pakistan states that all citizens are equal before law and there shall be no discrimination on the basis of sex alone. Is the discrepancy among boys and girls only with reference to marriage is not contradicting the constitution, asked Mubarik.

In Pakistan, the practice of marrying off young girls is common, particularly in low-income families but action cannot be taken against offenders.