Child marriage and Child sexual abuse

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Dr Fawad Kaiser 31 May 2019

Many women in the developing world are subject to marriage at an early age. Most such women have little choice in the age at which they marry, or whom they marry. The incidence varies widely, from a high of 70 per cent in south Asia to a low of 30 per cent in South East Asia. Women who marry young tend to have less education and begin childrearing earlier, and have less decision-making power in the household. They are also more likely to experience domestic violence.

There are some of the similarities between child marriages and child prostitution. Both child marriage and prostitution involve economic transactions, lack of freedom, and the violation of a child’s right to consent. This is often exacerbated by social and economic vulnerabilities of children linked to limited life options.

The alarming rise in reported incidents of child sexual abuse and child marriage cases in Pakistan is an urgent call to action for politicians, practitioners, media persons and citizens to collectively work towards preventive and punitive measures that tackle the challenge of child abuse.  Parliamentarians and legislators face an uphill task in finding support for human rights legislation in parliament, such as the newly tabled Islamabad Capital Territory Domestic Workers Act (2019).

Recent case of child sexual abuse in Federal Capital City of Islamabad and other cases reported in the last few months have made it abundantly clear that state responses are lacking when it comes to the suffering of victims and their families, let alone provide timely rescue and assistance. The National Commission on Child Rights was to be set up in 2017 – following the Zainab Ansari case – but two years have passed and the Commission’s rules of procedure and nomination of members is still subject to provincial governments’ indolence and political delay. Similarly The Marriage Restraint (Amendment) Act (2019) submitted earlier this year specifically calls for setting the minimum age at 18 years, but is pending approval from a parliamentary standing committee.    

Analysts feel that child abuse has traditionally been dealt with as a rights issue, but child sexual abuse as well as child marriage presents a veritable public health crisis. The Marriage Restraint (Amendment) Act (2019) submitted earlier this year specifically calls for setting the minimum age at 18 years, but is pending approval from a parliamentary standing committee. The state cannot reject the arguments of experts, who have shown how child marriage contributes to high maternal mortality rate and has negatively affected the children of the young parents, as their mothers are not psychologically or physically fit enough to be parents. The experts argue that instead of easing the family’s poverty, as is often the reason cited by parents for marrying off their children early, it actually contributes to inter-generational poverty.

Pakistan has long been a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of Child that sets the age of a child at 18 years. But legislative frameworks in both provincial and federal governments have overlooked this repeatedly, resulting in laws that fail to criminalize child marriage, child labour or domestic work, and provide little protection from sexual abuse for those under the age of 18.Concern remains that legislation is only the first step in creating visible and sustainable change, but implementing the same laws to impact change on the ground demands far greater effort by stakeholders. Children’s health is in severe danger when they give birth much before they turn 18, as it commonly results in high maternal and infant mortality rates, miscarriages and malnutrition.

Child marriage is widely recognized within international agreements as a violation of the human rights of children to health, education, equality, non-discrimination, and to live free from violence and exploitation enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Because of its long-term consequences, child marriage also violates the rights of women who were married as children, with serious implications for their health, income, work, autonomy, and life choices. The CRC and CEDAW Committees recently reiterated recommendations that States Parties amend or adopt laws setting the legal minimum age of marriage at 18

Despite these conventions, high rates of child marriage in many countries indicate that a range of views regarding definitions of childhood and marriage across countries and communities continue to exist. Moreover, girls are far more likely than boys to be forced into child marriage, reflecting widespread discrimination. The significant and long-term negative consequences for those affected by child marriage result in further solidifying women’s unequal status. A practice that violates girls’ human rights and impedes their full participation in education, the economy, politics, and policymaking has important implications not only for women’s equality but for the broader well-being and development of local, national, and global communities. The adoption of laws establishing a minimum age of marriage of 18 for girls and boys are a first step toward eliminating this harmful practice.

There is considerable evidence that the practice of child marriage perpetuates gender discrimination and jeopardizes the health and life chances of girls and women around the world. Combined with effective enforcement mechanisms, legal instruments are widely recognized in international agreements as an important tool in reducing the burden of child marriage globally. While progress has been achieved in setting a legislative floor protecting girls under 18 from marriage, considerable gaps remain in establishing laws that achieve gender parity and effectively make marriage below 18 illegal.

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