The Punjab Marriage Restraint (Amendment) Act 2015 has been passed but still has many weaknesses, says Advocate Ahmer.
He was speaking at a Roundtable Consultation on the issue of child marriages which are still rampant and have serious effects on not just an individual or a family but also society as a whole.
The 2015 amendment was made in the 1929 law, said Advocate Ahmer. The changes made enhanced the scope of the union council, the punishment and fine for both the parents as well as the person who solemnised the marriage, while the power of the Family Court was also increased. Now the Family Court would try the offence.
However, he pointed out that the offence was non-cognizable, and this meant that the procedure for complaint involved registering a child marriage case with the union council, which then directed the police to take action. Ordinary individuals could not alert the police nor could the police take action on their own.
Even besides this, he said there were several weaknesses in the Act. For example, the age of the marrying individuals was still not 18 years for both, despite increasing the age of the girl to 16 years. It was a bailable offence which meant the guilty party could easily be acquitted and avoid punishment. The fine, though increased from Rs1,000 to Rs50,000, was only a paltry sum to serve as punishment.
People spend millions on weddings so this sum is next to nothing, he said. There is no fear of flouting the rules for this crime. Also, no shelter or rehabilitation for the child especially the girl has been directed under the Act, he said.
The Alliance Against Child Marriages (AACM) members at the discussion said they did not entirely agree with the Act and said that despite engaging endlessly with parliamentarians and social welfare department, they could see that the law still missed a lot of integral points.
Another important point was that there was no dissolution of a marriage that had already taken place. They said child marriages affected the physical and mental health of the mother and also the child. Maternal and infant mortality rates are already very high and part of this problem is girls being married at very young ages when they can neither bear such intense and serious responsibilities nor can they condition themselves to unfamiliar and even many times violent and unfriendly environments.
The AACM said the Punjab government should put this on top of their priority list not just because it was a social and economic issue but also because of various international treaties and conventions that Pakistan has signed and ratified, especially the GSP plus.
According to statistics provided by the AACM, in 2012-13, about 35pc of the women within the age of 35 to 40 have been married under 18 years.
A comprehensive law, they said, was needed with serious punishments. The proof of age must be attached with a CNIC. In case of marriage dissolution, the maintenance and residence of the child must be the responsibility of the same court which ended the marriage as well as decided the guardianship of any child born out of that marriage.
They said the offence must be made cognizable, and cases should be dealt with as soon as possible.
HRCP lawyer Mahboob Ahmed Khan said child marriage had grim social effects and in most cases common sense dictated that even the age of 18 was not enough, and that the person needed to be much more experienced and independent to undertake responsibilities of marriage. He said the Act had made the complaint procedure complicated.
Saadia Sohail Rana, a PTI lawmaker, said decisions in the Assembly were usually not based on the importance of the issue. She said it was cruelty to children and did not matter if parents or guardians did it. Just because they are parents does not give them the right to snatch away the childhood from an innocent child and to push her into a world of unfamiliarity and cruelty which can scar her, even when she turns 40.
She said this was the reason the population was increasing. It is ironic that the person must have an ID card and be 18 years to vote or get a driving licence but not when it comes to marriage, she said.