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Oxfam forms task forces to prevent child marriages

Oxfam forms task forces to prevent child marriages

ISLAMABAD: In a spirited speech at a consultation meeting on child marriages, organised by Oxfam Novib and the Young Parliamentarians Forum (YPF), MNA Marvi Memon offered Oxfam and its partners the use of over 47,000 Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) beneficiary committees for their project to end child marriages in Pakistan.

The committees, which are spread across 32 districts in the country, are dedicated to women’s empowerment.

“We’re giving you the population which is most badly affected, and we’re giving you a platform where you can come and fix all of this,” she said.

YPF and Oxfam Novib also signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), for partnership in youth development programs.

YPF general secretary Shiza Fatima Khawaja said YPF sought partnership with Oxfam for research, data collection, policy making and lobbying for issues related to children and the youth.

The consultation meetings discussed Oxfam Novib’s ‘Bachpan Bachao’ programme which aims to end child marriages in Pakistan.

It is working to raise awareness about the dangers of child marriages and aims to ‘strengthen young boys and girls’ and work on policy reform.

According to a documentary screened during the event, the project is active in four districts of Punjab and Sindh.

It has conducted training sessions and formed community task forces comprising the police, social welfare departments, lawyers, child protection units, health departments, teachers, religious leaders and nikah registrars.

These task forces will undertake advocacy and preventive efforts to prevent child marriages. According to the documentary, the task forces have prevented seven child marriages, including two by women task forces.

Community activists Shahana Abbas Shani and Sabeeha Khanum explained how they had prevented child marriages in their respective districts.

Ms Khanum, who is from Larkana and teaches fifth grade students, said she stopped one of her young students from being married off by explaining to her parents that doing so is against the law and punishable by three months in prison or a fine of Rs150,000.

Ms Shani said she enlisted the help of her community in Muzaffargarh to prevent the marriage of a 9th grade student. She said her community was active in raising awareness about child marriages despite receiving negative responses.

Both activists said they had received threats for their work toward preventing child marriages.

As part of their work on child marriages, Oxfam released an analysis of Pakistani laws on the prevention of early marriages and identified lacunas within them.

Programme Monitoring and Learning Officer Ayesha Inam said many Pakistani laws were contradictory, and it was imperative that these contradictions were understood.

The analysis noted the achievements and shortcomings of existing laws, including the Sindh Child Marriages Restraint Act 2013 and the Punjab Marriage Restraint (Amendment) Act 2015. It then situated these laws within the context of Pakistan’s international commitments and laws around child marriages in Islamic countries Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Morocco.

Of particular contention was the automatic dissolution of proven child marriages, something the laws from both provinces do not touch on. Punjab’s amendments also do not assign a uniform age of marriage (which is 16 for girls and 18 for boys).

Ms Inam said that clauses that set the marriageable age of women as 16 (against 18 for men), violate constitutional safeguards against gender discrimination.

Ms Inam said the relationship between rape and the consummation of child marriages was unclear, as Section 375 of the Pakistan Penal Code, in its definition of ‘rape’, states “with our without her consent when she is under 16 years of age”.

However, during a panel discussion following the analysis, Aahang legal advisor and board member Maliha Zia said that the courts have upheld this definition of rape, even when the victim was married.

She added that the original drafts of Punjab and Sindh’s bills were very different to the final laws, saying that Sindh’s law was particularly progressive and originally discussed the automatic dissolution of child marriages, and the legitimacy and rights of children from child marriages.

Speakers also emphasized the lack of support structures for child marriage victims, even after their marriages have been dissolved, saying social taboos around sexual relations can lead to girls being ostracised by their communities and leave them at risk of honour violence.

Published in Dawn, December 18th, 2015

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