Lack of implementation hampers efforts to end Child Marriages in Balochistan
Lack of implementation hampers efforts to end Child Marriages in Balochistan
Asim Ahmed Khan

Muhammad Mengal was filled with joy in the evening as his eldest son got married that day. However, their happiness turned sour when they reached the house of the bride’s father, Meher Ali. A condition was imposed upon them: alongside the arranged marriage, Meher Ali demanded that Muhammad’s five-year-old daughter, Mah Bibi, be married to his 13-year-old son.

Though the union had been agreed upon by both families beforehand, Muhammad Mengal insisted that the marriage wait until both children reached adulthood. Despite his efforts to persuade Meher Ali that his daughter was too young, he found himself powerless against Meher Ali’s persistent pressure. Consequently, Mah Bibi was coerced into marriage at the tender age of five. Meher Ali sent his daughter away, forcefully separating Mah Bibi from her family.

Muhammad Mengal, a resident of Tehsil Zehri in the Khuzdar district, had no choice but to leave his young daughter behind and return home. However, a few days later, he reported the incident to the police.

The police promptly registered a case and apprehended Meher Ali along with those who had facilitated the marriage. The incident was documented in an FIR filed by the Khuzdar Sadar Police Station, citing violations of the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act of 1929, as well as Sections 420, 342, and 34 of the Pakistan Penal Code.

The Station House Officer (SHO) stated that following the arrest of the accused, the girl was rescued and reunited with her parents.

A few days following the marriage of five-year-old Mah Bibi, the Federal Sharia Court took notice of the situation and requested a report from the provincial government.

The court directed the law officer of Balochistan to outline the measures being taken by the provincial assembly to prevent child and forced marriages. Presenting a partial report from the Khuzdar Police and the Social Welfare Department of Balochistan, the law officer admitted to being unaware of the current status of the draft law on child marriage. In response, the court ordered the provincial government to submit the draft law on child marriages within 20 days.

Despite being presented multiple times in the Provincial Assembly of Balochistan, this law has faced obstacles.

Former Member of the Provincial Assembly Yasmin Lahri recalled that in 2014 when she introduced the bill to establish an age limit for marriage in the Balochistan Assembly, it faced staunch opposition from religious parties. They demanded that any legislation should adhere to Sharia principles.”

In 2016, MPA Dr. Shama Ishaq once again presented the bill in the assembly, only to have it rejected on grounds of being ‘un-Islamic’.

Although the media and civil society raised considerable outcry, the bill failed to be reintroduced in the assembly.

According to Balochistan’s Secretary Law and Parliamentary Affairs Department, Babar Kaleem Ullah, the last time the bill was presented to the Balochistan Cabinet, objections were raised regarding setting the age limit at 18 years and declaring it invalid despite having a child after marriage. As a result, the bill was returned to the concerned departments for further review.

Former advisor to Chief Minister Balochistan, Bushra Rind, expressed the government’s desire to pass this bill. She stated that the former provincial government had convened several meetings on this matter and directed relevant institutions to address all flaws and make improvements.

Babar Kaleem mentioned that the bill is currently with the Social Welfare Department. The department held a consultative session on December 30 with various stakeholders, and the draft will soon be presented again to the provincial cabinet, with plans to also present it before the Federal Sharia Court.

A law enacted in 1929 to prohibit child marriage has been enforced across Pakistan.

Under this Act:

– A girl must be at least 16 years old, and a boy must be 18 years old at the time of marriage.

– In cases where authentic documents to determine a person’s age are unavailable, the court may order a medical examination.

– Parents or guardians who marry off children at a young age or bridegrooms above 18 years old may face punishment, including imprisonment for up to one month or a fine of Rs.1000.

Following the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 2010, marriage and family matters became a provincial subject.

In 2014, Sindh enacted a new provincial law to prohibit child marriage, setting the minimum marriage age at 18 for both girls and boys. Under this legislation, parents, guardians, and accomplices can face imprisonment for up to three years and fines for arranging underage marriages. Adulterous marriage is not only a cognizable police offense under this law but also a non-bailable and non-compoundable offense.

In 2015, Punjab amended the 1929 law. According to the amendment, any individual suspecting that a girl or boy is being married at an early age can lodge a complaint with the concerned Union Council. Subsequently, the Chairman of the Union Council will file a case in the family court. This amendment increased the punishment for violations to up to six months imprisonment and a fine of 50,000 rupees.

In Islamabad, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Balochistan, numerous attempts have been made to enact new legislation, but none have been successful thus far. Therefore, only the 1929 law remains in force in these regions.

Samreen Mengal, a social activist based in Quetta, advocates for the necessity of legislation to prohibit child marriages. According to her, the minimum age for marriage should be 18 years.

Zia Baloch, a member of a welfare organization, has been actively involved in preventing numerous underage marriages by taking timely action. Zia stated that last year, they not only intervened to halt such a marriage but also filed a legal case.

Sara Zaman, a feminist activist and researcher hailing from Karachi, also holds a teaching position at a private university. She has dedicated the past fifteen years to working with various national and international organizations on women’s issues. According to her, there exist social, religious, and economic factors driving early marriages. “The marriage of young girls is also seen as advantageous to parents, as they need not incur significant expenses for their daughter’s wedding nor provide dowry.”

Their research has uncovered that such marriages are often arranged to settle family debts, resolve blood feuds, or simply address household financial burdens.

Professor Dr Najma Ghaffar, Head of the Gynecology Unit at Bolan Medical College, Quetta, asserts that early marriages often result in various complications during

pregnancy. According to her, addressing this issue necessitates the training of law enforcement officials and the establishment of a system to ensure that cases are handled effectively.