by Syed Miqdad Mehdi
The fact that our policy-makers thought about this issue and passed this bill should be appreciated. However, I am surprised that the word ‘child does not appear in the title of the bill. It now reads as the Punjab Marriage Restraint Act 2015.
Furthermore, this law is not in accordance with international commitments or the spirit of the UN Convention on the Rights of Children or the rights that are given by the Constitution of Pakistan.
The definition that has been given in Section 2(a) of the act, regarding who exactly is a child, is flawed. According to it, a female person is a child if she is less than 16-years-old and a male is a child if he is less than 18-years-old – which is discriminatory and is against the Constitution. On the other hand, the definitions it provides in Section 2(d) regarding the term ‘minor’ contradicts the above mentioned clause.
This new law in Punjab does not make the offence cognisable, non-compoundable or non-bailable, and the complain process through the union council is still the same – lengthy and inept. This law is unable to effectively serve its purpose and put an end to child marriages, due to the legal complications it poses. These complications often make it hard for the victim to file their complaints or for the police to work efficiently.
The Punjab legislature could have taken a leaf out of Sindh’s Child Marriages Restraint Act 2013; this law makes the offences cognisable, non-bailable and non-compoundable. Comparatively, the bill clearly defines punishment for the culprits – three years (maximum) and two years (minimum) – while giving discretionary powers to the judges regarding the fine charged. Whereas in Punjab, the punishment “may extend” to imprisonment for a period of maximum six months and a fine of maximum Rs50,000 only, while the minimum limit is the judge’s discretion.
I feel that, since the situation of child rights is already pathetic in the province of Punjab, and the reporting process of child marriages to the police is cumbersome, the government should have given this law more thought, and should have passed a more comprehensive bill. While we have different NGOs that have shared disturbing data regarding child marriages, we rarely find any FIRs or cases registered with the police for this crime, and till now, the conviction rate for child marriages is almost zero. This is because the issue is not taken seriously at all by policy makers, and has much acceptance in our rural society.
We have quite capable jurists and legal experts; I experienced this fact a few weeks ago, when I attended a national conference against child marriages by the Democratic Commission for Human Development. In a very impactful and issue-oriented session, all stakeholders, including religious scholars, agreed to the agenda of Bachpan Bachao.
During a conference called the Alliance against Child Marriages in Punjab, a group of civil society organisations from the province shared the draft of a better and more well-rounded bill with the participants. It not only addressed the issue but also provided the mechanism for the recovery and rehabilitation to the victims of child marriages. Our lawmakers had better pay heed to his bill, and get it approved from Punjab Assembly.
If we want to survive as a nation, our children need to come first. Otherwise, we shall not be able to break this ‘vicious circle’ of child abuse and poverty, and more children would fall prey to this foul practice.