(Co-written with Shena Cavallo.)
A recent decision about when girls in Islamabad, Pakistan, can get married has gotten much attention in the press. The National Assembly Standing Committee on Religious Affairs deemed a bill that would have raised the minimum age of marriage for girls in Islamabad from 16 to 18 “un-Islamic.” The proposed legislation was withdrawn before being put to a vote. Had the law passed at the federal level, the Child Marriage Restraint (Amendment) Bill would have brought the entire country in line with the international standard set in multiple treaties and UN resolutions, and set higher penalties for anyone who arranges the marriage of children.
While passage of the law in Islamabad would have been a huge victory, it was not entirely surprising for the Council to issue such an opinion; it has made similar judgments on the issue of age of marriage before. Religious leaders argue that Islam allows for girls to marry as soon as they reach puberty, or as young as age 9.
However, human rights activists—including Pakistan’s most famous daughter, Malala Yousafzai—insist that Islam cannot be a cover for human rights abuses such as child marriage. They note that Islam holds that both individuals intending to marry should do so freely; as minors, young people under 18 are unable to give consent.
This is a message that Aahung, a Karachi-based NGO, is spreading. They work with local communities to tackle misconceptions and raise awareness about the dangers of child, early, and forced marriage and adolescents’ health and rights. Most recently, Aahung has found community theater with interactive elements provides a way to tackle misconceptions in real time.
Community theater is visual, and when viewed as entertainment, audiences seem to be more receptive to the messaging. It’s a safe space, and there is no expectation among audience members that their values and beliefs will be challenged. Aahung designs the theater performances to not only raise awareness about the negative health and social side-effects of child marriage, but also to emphasize the role that everyone—friends, family members, caregivers, and especially teachers—can play.
To date, Aahung has reached more than 11,000 young people and adults through these performances, including teachers and caregivers. Aahung staff like that they can immediately gauge audience reactions—something they are obviously unable to do with TV or radio appearances—and directly respond to misconceptions. The performances include interactive elements in which audience members are asked to give their reactions and opinions.
“Being physically mature is not a sign of psychological development,” one audience member observed. “It is important the couple is mentally mature before getting married, so that they can make informed decisions.”
This kind of work, which asks people to think critically about the choices they make for themselves and others, is particularly important now, as the issue of child marriage is debated throughout the country.
“The fact that this initiative was a success is a testament of hope to those working towards changing this social norm, despite prevailing laws,” says Sana Khan, Manager of Life Skills Education at Aahung.
While the Child Marriage Restraint Bill did not pass in Islamabad, there are other regions of the country that are making progress through legislation. Sindh Province, which has the highest rates of child marriage in Pakistan and where Aahung is based, passed its own Child Marriage Restraint Act in 2013 and made the legal age of marriage 18 for both boys and girls. Just last year in Punjab Province, the penalties were raised for arranging the marriage of children and the requirements for reporting marriages were made stricter. And in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province, the local Assembly is considering increasing the age of marriage to 18 for girls and boys. These are clear indications that while some in the capital may hold tightly to the ways of the past, many in Pakistan are looking at how to better protect and empower women and girls in the future.
As disappointing as it might be that the bill did not pass in Islamabad, we know that laws alone will not end the practice or undo the cultural norms that perpetuate it. It is organizations like Aahung—which tackle deeply held beliefs and give people the information they need to make their own decisions—that will affect change.