Pakistan’s Christians Fear Forced Marriages. Punjab Court Ruling Brings New Hope

Church leaders and human rights experts weigh in on whether raising the legal age is sufficient in shielding minors.

Nearly one in five (18.3%) Pakistani girls are married before age 18, according to data from 2017 to 2018, with over half becoming pregnant as children. Many of these girls are of Christian or Hindu faiths that collectively make up 3.5 percent of the population, while the rest are Muslim.

While the government has officially banned child marriage, discriminatory laws and lack of enforcement have allowed the practice to persist. Most child marriages are arranged by families, but an estimated 1,000 girls are abducted, converted to Islam, and then forcibly married to their abductors each year. These child brides face heightened risks of pregnancy-related health complications and maternal mortality.

A recent ruling by the Lahore High Court could provide another tool for advocates and church leaders trying to protect Pakistani girls. In April, it struck down a provision of the 1929 Child Marriage Restraint Act that set the minimum marriage age at 16 for girls but 18 for boys. Deeming this definition of a child as “discriminatory and unconstitutional,” the court directed the province of Punjab to revise the law with a uniform minimum age of 18 for both genders.

The judgment cited Pakistan’s constitutional guarantees of gender equality and protection of women and children’s rights and presented data showing how adolescent pregnancy is one of the leading causes of death for 15- to 19-year-old girls.

“We, as a nation, woefully lag behind in all major indicators, and half of our population cannot be lost to childbearing at an early age while its potential remains untapped,” wrote Justice Shahid Karim. “Equal opportunities for females mean equal restraint on marriage as the males.”

As Punjab …

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