Children without childhood – Makhtoom Ahmed

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Pakistani legislation promotes patriarchal interests in most social affairs, within which women are denied fundamental rights.

Childhood is a life course of joy, leisure and play. Children are developing beings that require attention, security and care. Yet, they are also contributing to society and influencing social circumstances. They need material resources, educational opportunities and moral support for the pleasant development of their personality.

Childhood belongs to children, not to the adults. Similarly, children’s rights belong to children and must be enshrined by their significant adults. However, children in many societies, including Pakistan, are seen to be the property of their parents with having only certain duties towards them, without any rights. By no surprise, child marriage callously denies childhood and dashes the primal rights.

UNCRC defines a child as someone under 18 years of age. However, in Pakistan, the legal age of marriage is 16 years for a girl and 18 years for a male child. Despite this, marriage takes place even earlier than this age in most rural settings.

According to a report by UNICEF in 2018, 21 per cent of girls is married before 18 years of age in Pakistan. Poverty, illiteracy, cultural norms and religious interpretations have been identified as major factors behind child marriage. Child marriage is the violation of the fundamental children’s rights as enshrined in the UNCRC. Still, various efforts have been taken by agencies and organisations, at the international level, to tackle the issue of child marriage.

In 2014, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution, in which 11 member states, including Pakistan, supported the resolution to end child marriages. Ending child marriage is also a target to be achieved by 2030 in the Sustainable Development Goals. However, the practice of child marriage still poses a serious challenge in Pakistan, with limited state concerns.Pakistani legislation promotes patriarchal interests in most social affairs, within which women are denied fundamental rights.

Childhood is a life course of joy, leisure and play. Children are developing beings that require attention, security and care. Yet, they are also contributing to society and influencing social circumstances. They need material resources, educational opportunities and moral support for the pleasant development of their personality.

Childhood belongs to children, not to the adults. Similarly, children’s rights belong to children and must be enshrined by their significant adults. However, children in many societies, including Pakistan, are seen to be the property of their parents with having only certain duties towards them, without any rights. By no surprise, child marriage callously denies childhood and dashes the primal rights.

UNCRC defines a child as someone under 18 years of age. However, in Pakistan, the legal age of marriage is 16 years for a girl and 18 years for a male child. Despite this, marriage takes place even earlier than this age in most rural settings.

According to a report by UNICEF in 2018, 21 per cent of girls is married before 18 years of age in Pakistan. Poverty, illiteracy, cultural norms and religious interpretations have been identified as major factors behind child marriage. Child marriage is the violation of the fundamental children’s rights as enshrined in the UNCRC. Still, various efforts have been taken by agencies and organisations, at the international level, to tackle the issue of child marriage.

In 2014, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution, in which 11 member states, including Pakistan, supported the resolution to end child marriages. Ending child marriage is also a target to be achieved by 2030 in the Sustainable Development Goals. However, the practice of child marriage still poses a serious challenge in Pakistan, with limited state concerns.

According to article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “Marriage shall be entered into only by the free and full consent of intending spouses.”

However, in the patriarchal structure of Pakistani society, the legislation promotes patriarchal interests in most of the social affairs, within which women are denied fundamental rights of development and well-being.

Similarly, child marriage denies the rights to education, impacts physical and mental health, reduces freedom and autonomy and development of positive personality. Marriage is a matter of personal choice of every intending individual. Yet, for the most part, children are not involved in marriage decisions as well as the selection of partners.

Early marriage is arranged by the family adults. Even if it occurs with a child consent, a child is not mentally mature enough to make a sound decision as per their age, and they are emotionally and socially developing and do not understand the long-term consequences of such decisions.

In some rural settings, children are engaged at an early age and even before birth. Resistance to engagement remains negative for any of the promising family because it breaks the kinship alliance between both of the families. As a consequence, children fall prey to the promises made by their parents. When children are contracted into marriage, no matter how bad their lives are, they cannot resist or end up with marriage. This is so common for girl children, who are stigmatised, threatened for losing family assets from the family and rejection from parents.

Family honour becomes important factors in child marriages, believed to be resting with girls. Parents marry their children earlier so that they do not dishonour their parents or abstain from premarital relationships. Early married girls have an exchange value and a fixed price such as bride price (money, gifts, cattle, other accessories), which make early marriage attractive for the recipient families. This enables many of the poor parents to provide a small amount of dowry if the girl is young. Poverty driven communities most often contract their children into early marriage.

In addition to this, early marriage is perceived to be in the interests and well-being of the children. However, there are widely reported cases of maternal and infant mortality and other physical and mental health consequence associated with child marriage in Pakistan. It increases the risk of poor fertility due to repeated birth, or termination of pregnancy and miscarriage. Many girls are married earlier do not have proper knowledge about maternal health and do not have access to such knowledge. Some marriages are consanguinity due to which genetic disorder or diseases are common to be found amongst their children. They also cannot develop an emotional attachment and provide proper care to their newborn babies. Married children become compel to leave their school and peer circle and engage in labour or domestic activities, which haunt their physical growth and cognitive development. It reduces their autonomy and freedom to decide what is important to their life. There are also reported cases of marital rape, forced pregnancy and domestic abuse. Happily married couples experience high life satisfaction and wellbeing, but marital strain increases vulnerability and risk psychological health. It affects immune functioning, hygiene eating behaviour, increases anxiety and depression and couples are at risk of social loneliness and avoiding the interaction. Thus, early marriage is pernicious to children’s life satisfaction and wellbeing.

Most of the early married children remain illiterate who are forced to leave their school, engage in domestic activities or labour. Education enables a girl with marital autonomy. Lack of education condenses employability and creates economic dependency, which will make the girls further vulnerable and render them unable to know their legal rights and approach to a court.

In past, there have been various initiatives to put an end to child marriage, but all at vain due to resistance from religious parties in raising the age for marriage. On April 2019 senate passed a bill to end child marriage. This seems a positive development. However, there is need of dire concern to promote girls’ education, increase the literacy rate, especially in the rural communities, prompt awareness campaigns to end child marriage and develop a proper policy, which promotes the interests of children, not adults.

The writer is a lecturer of Sociology at BUITEMS, Quetta