ISLAMABAD -- The Pakistani government is moving to raise the age of marriage, a reform applauded by activists and government officials as a blow against the practice of child marriage.
A bill to raise the minimum marriageable age in Pakistan to 18 was presented to Parliament by Senator Sherry Rehman during a meeting of the Senate Standing Committee on Human Rights on March 6.
The bill proposes an amendment to the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929, a federal law that set the age limit at 14 for girls before it was increased to 16 by an ordinance in 1961.
The committee passed the bill unanimously January 31.
"The amendment to the law will extend to Islamabad Capital Territory and, if passed, will classify anyone below the age of 18 as a child," Rehman, a member of the Pakistan Peoples Party, told parliament.
"It will also ban marriage before 18 and declare it a non-cognisable and non-compoundable act. Sindh already passed a law setting the age of marriage consent at 18 years in 2014, so we are hoping that this will send a positive message to other provinces as well," she said.
The government supports the bill because it is for the good of the Pakistani people, said Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari.
"We want to ensure the welfare of women and children," she said before the Senate on January 31.
The practice of child marriage is often connected to outdated ways to settle disputes, and this ban will likely encourage other, more positive ways to resolve feuds.
Qamar Naseem, co-ordinator of the Provincial Alliance to End Child Marriages in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), welcomed the new bill and called it a very encouraging step in protecting young girls.
"Early and forced marriage violates God-given human rights as well as the sanctity of marriage and family in Islam," he told Pakistan Forward.
"It's time to open up dialogue on the role of faith and religion in protecting the rights of girls and women, and how faith can help prevent child, early and forced marriages," he said.
Pakistan is a signatory to the United Nations (UN)'s Sustainable Development Goals and has committed to ending child marriage by 2030.
Raising the minimum age of marriage is "crucial in eradicating the harmful practice and effects of child marriage", said Naseem.
"We want KP to pass the bill" on child marriage "that has been pending for the past 10 years, and we want Punjab to raise the minimum age for marriage to 18," he added. "Punjab has passed a law, but only the penalty has been increased."
Hina Jilani, one of the founders of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, applauded the bill and joined Naseem in calling for other provinces to move their respective laws forward.
"KP's pending bills can be made into law provided that the assemblies pass the resolution under Section 144 of the Constitution and ask the Senate to pass the resolution too," she told Pakistan Forward.
Three percent of girls in Pakistan are married before they turn 15 and 21% before the age of 18, according to the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF).
Almost 15% of child brides in KP bore their first child before the age of 18, according to a Pakistan Health and Demographic Survey in 2017 to 2018.
Child marriages contribute to high child mortality rates and the stunting of growth in children, said Peshawar-based Senator Mehar Taj Roghani, a former paediatrician.
The proposed law "can put the brakes" on those issues, she told Pakistan Forward. "It's a harmful practice and has destructive effects on the physical and mental health of women, because the marriage does not only violate their rights once -- the consequences are for a lifetime."
Young women are likelier to face health challenges if they marry at an early age, and Pakistanis need to realise the negative effects associated with the practice, agreed Dr. Shaheen Begum, the secretary of the Association of Gynaecologists in Pakistan.
"Women are expected to be ready to bear several domestic responsibilities along with child bearing, which adversely affects the health of the mother and her children," she told Pakistan Forward. "We want a complete ban on child marriage, and society should be sensitised that" child marriages are "a negative social phenomenon".
Pakistan ranks second in the world in the number of child marriages, said Begum.
"That is the disturbing reality," she said. "Everyone should be made aware of the negative impact child marriages have on Pakistani families, particularly on their health and standard of living."