Pakistan lawmaker battles to raise punishment for child marriage

ISLAMABAD Wed Mar 26, 2014 4:51pm IST

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ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - A bill introduced in Pakistan's National Assembly to increase the punishment for guardians, clerics and spouses involved in child marriages should be supported by religious leaders, the legislator behind the move said on Wednesday.

"I've seen this injustice in my constituency and around the country in every single province," legislator Marvi Memon told Reuters. "It's time that we stand up for our women."

Pakistan's conservative religious parties strongly opposed the bill tabled by Memon on Tuesday, and some Muslim clerics want the penalties scrapped altogether.

Currently, women can legally marry at 16 in Pakistan and men at 18. But many marry much younger, and the current penalty for anyone involved in a child marriage is a $10 fine, possibly accompanied by up to a month's imprisonment.

Memon has proposed that the fine should be increased to $1,000 and the possible jail sentence to two years. The bill is currently being reviewed.

Earlier this month Pakistan's Council of Islamic Ideology issued a statement criticizing current laws forbidding child marriage. The Council said that children should be allowed to get married once they reach puberty under Islamic law.

Memon argues that child marriages cause women to become pregnant before their bodies are ready, leading to permanent damage and possible death. She plans to enlist Islamic scholars to refute the guidance of the religious council.

"Early marriages lead to early conception, which cause many health issues and sometimes death," Memon said.

Even if Memon's bill is passed, it will be hard to enforce. Pakistani police are notoriously reluctant to interfere with what many see as culturally acceptable traditions.

Even if police do arrest a suspect, the overworked lower courts can take years to hear a case, and bribes can often make charges disappear.

But the high courts have become more activist in recent years. Judges are increasingly intervening in egregious cases of human rights violations, although their rulings are not always effective and there is little follow-up.

One third of women around the world are married before they turn 18, according to the Washington D.C.-based International Center for Research on Women. The tradition of child marriage is most prevalent in South Asia. Pregnancy is the leading cause of death for girls between 15 and 19, the group said.

There are no reliable statistics on the number of child marriages in Pakistan. Few cases are reported to the police. The government does not track the issue.

Maulana Muhammad Khan Sherani, who chairs the Council of Islamic Ideology, opposed Memon's introduction of the bill in the parliament. He argued in the National Assembly that current laws forbidding marriage to children contradict the Koran.

He did not return calls seeking comment.

(Editing by Katharine Houreld and Simon Cameron-Moore)

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