Civil Society Supports Amendment Bill to Prevent Child Marriage in Punjab

Lahore (24 May 2024): Human rights activists have welcomed the introduction of the Punjab Child Marriage Restraint Bill, 2024, and are urging the Punjab government to pass this critical legislation to prevent child marriage. They call for immediate action to protect the family of Roshni Shakeel, an underage girl from Multan who was subjected to child marriage and forced faith conversion, and to bring the perpetrators to justice.

The case of 13-year-old Roshni Shakeel highlights the urgent need for this bill. Roshni was abducted, forcibly converted, and married to Muazzam Mazhar. An FIR (No. 782/24) under section 365-B of the Pakistan Penal Code was registered at Sital Mari Police Station in Multan on 13 March 2024. Two months later, Roshni escaped captivity and reunited with her parents. She revealed that her statement under section 164 of Cr.P.C. was obtained under duress, with her abductors threatening to kill her and her parents if she did not comply. Roshni disclosed that she was held against her will and that Muazzam had planned to traffic her to Saudi Arabia for money.

Joseph Jansen, chairperson of Voice for Justice, emphasized that child marriage threatens children’s rights and adversely affects their health, emotional, and psychological well-being. He stated that it is the state's primary duty to protect children from abuse and exploitation. Jansen pointed out that police responses to child marriage complaints vary, with some officers booking all responsible parties, including family members and Nikkah Khwan, while in most cases, they fail to include existing legal safeguards in the FIR such as sections of the Child Marriage Restraint Act, and sections 498-B, 361, and 364-A of the PPC. He observed that child and forced marriage practices are often validated by police and judiciary, misled by forged documents and coerced statements from minor victims, allowing perpetrators to evade justice.

Nadia Stephen, a women’s rights activist, expressed hope that the bill proposed by MPA Sarah Ahmad, in light of the recent Lahore High Court order by Justice Shahid Karim on the petition filed by Barrister Azka Wahid, will contribute to protecting underage girls. She stated that this act, if adopted, will raise the legal minimum age for marriage for girls from 16 to 18 years and address the manipulations observed during investigations and trials.

Rukhsana Zafar highlighted that the proposed bill mandates the production of national identity cards and birth certificates issued by NADRA for both boys and girls wishing to register a marriage. She noted that authorities often ignore these requirements during investigations and trials in cases involving accusations of abduction, child marriage, and forced faith conversions.

Anosh Waseem pointed out that approximately 30 percent of girls in Pakistan are married off as child brides. Underage minority girls continue to suffer due to the impunity enjoyed by perpetrators, as seen in numerous cases of abduction followed by marriage and conversion.

Aneel Edger, a human rights defender, stressed that no person below the age of 18 is legally competent to enter into marriage and convert. He called on state institutions to impartially and promptly investigate forced conversions and child marriages, apprehend the perpetrators, ensure fair trial proceedings, and guarantee victims access to justice and effective remedies.

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