On September 1, 2018 Sindh Police arrested four people allegedly involved in a child marriage ceremony in Tando Muhammad Khan district and lodged a case against them under Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act 2014. According to police, four people including Saddam Mallah, the 12-year-old groom, Gulzadi Mallah, the 14-year-old bride and two of their relatives were arrested from the Shaikh Bharkio locality following the incident whereas the nikkah registrar for the ceremony managed to escape.Next day, police arrested five people, including a 12-year-old bride namely Zahida and 13-year-old groom Allah Juryo from Sanghar district for their alleged involvement in another child marriage ceremony. A case was registered in Mangli Police Station under the Sindh Children Act. According to police, the nikkah registrar escaped. A few days after this incident, on September 8, police in district Umerkot’s Kunri town raided a marriage party and took the bride namely Sajida and groom Fida Muhammad Kapri into custody. According to police, the bride and groom were both underage. Later on, a case was registered against five people under Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act 2014. However, both Sajida and Kapri claimed that they were 19 years old and it was legal for them to marry.Pakistan’s Child Marriage Restraint Act (CMRA) 1929, sets the legal age for marriage to 16 for women and 18 for men. In May 2017, the National Assembly (NA) rejected a drafted Child Marriage Restraint Act for the second time. The proposal would have set 18 years as the legal age of marriage for women nationwide. However, in Sindh, the minimum age for marriage for both women and men was set at 18 when the Sindh Assembly unanimously adopted the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act in April 2014. The passage of this Act made marriage below 18 a punishable offence.Despite the presence of laws forbidding child marriage, child marriage cases continue to trickle in from all across the country. Sahil, a non-government organization working on child protection has collected national data of child marriages through monitoring online and print newspapers. According to Sahil’s database, a total of 557 child marriage cases were reported from all over the country between 2012 and 2016. During this period, Sindh with 274 reports of child marriage remained on top while Punjab remained second with 160 reported cases. On the other hand, data gathered by Sindh Police indicates that only 57 cases have been registered under Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act. Another alarming piece of information is that out of the total reported child marriage cases in Sindh, only two received court verdicts.“The conviction rate for child marriages is quite low. Nobody knows the actual number of cases. If 100 cases are being reported, only five percent of them get a formal court verdict,” Mumtaz Gohar, a representative of Sahil informed Daily Times.Child marriage in Pakistan is connected with tradition, culture, and customary practices. In some cases, as in the cultural custom of ‘vani’, a young girl is forcibly married as part of punishment for a crime committed by her male relatives. In another child marriage custom called ‘swara’ young girls are forcibly married off to members of different clans in order to settle blood feuds. ‘Watta satta’ is another customary practice which often leads to child marriage. This custom involves the simultaneous marriage of a brother-sister pair from two households. These customary practices are mostly sanctioned by a ‘Jirga’ which is held under the elders of the community.According to Iqbal Detho, a human rights activist and prominent lawyer, social and economic reasons primarily lead to childhood marriages. “Agricultural families think that after marriage they will have extra family members to handle the household chores and work in the fields. Hence, the tilt towards child marriages,” he said. “Marriage for money is another reason. Some tribes sell out their girls. Another reason for child marriages is social security. As soon as a girl hits puberty, her parents marry her off,” Detho explained.According to a United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) report, child marriage is a serious violation of girls’ human rights. In Pakistan, one in three girls are married before reaching the age of 18.The UNFPA report further states that child marriage robs girls of their childhood and future prospects since girls who marry are less likely to finish school and are at higher risk of domestic violence, abuse and health issues. The report states that girls who fall in the age bracket of 15-19 are most vulnerable to domestic violence. It further says that marrying at an early age reduces a girl’s autonomy and often has disastrous implications on the child bride’s life. According to Dr Mussarat, an endocrinologist based in Karachi, early marriage has negative health-related consequences. “It subjects girls to at-risk pregnancies, fistula, sexually transmitted infections or even death. It is a well documented fact that young girls are likely to pass away from complications during childbirth,” she said.According to Detho child marriage is a social and cultural issue and police alone cannot do much to put an end to it. “A nikkah registrar is supposed to confirm that the bride and groom are above the minimum age for marriage before marrying them off. Similarly, the deputy commissioner has the responsibility of ensuring that every nikkah registrar confirms the age of marriage before performing nikkah. A nikkah registrar can lose his license if he marries minors off,” remarked Detho.According to Mumtaz Gohar, another reason behind child marriages in rural areas is lack of awareness regarding birth certificates. “In order to escape from the clutches of laws prohibiting child marriages, parents often lie about the age of their children, especially girls, at the time of their marriage. There is no way to confirm their actual age because birth certificates are not available,” he explained.According to human rights activists, child marriage cases are under-reported in Pakistan because the local populace avoids registering complains against the phenomenon. In rural areas, police also refrain from registering cases against child marriage because they are mostly backed by influential feudal lords.According to Rana Asif, a senior human rights activist, even the police have to face consequences of registering cases against child marriage. “A female SHO posted in Umerkot took action against one such child marriage case. Afterwards, a local feudal registered a fake case against her,” said Rana.In January, Chief Minister (CM) Murad Ali Shah decided to establish Child Protection Units at all female police stations to deal with child abuse cases. However, little has been done to actually implement this.“In child marriage cases, Child Protection Authority can deal with police, take suo moto actions, communicate with communities and, if necessary, provide legal and social aid to victims,” said Rana.According to the human rights activist, another factor that raises the chances of child marriages is love marriages through court. “It has been observed that in most cases couples’ CNICs are not checked. Hence training of those who are involved in dealing with such cases is also important,” said Rana Asif.According to Barrister Murtaza Wahab who is an advisor to CM on law, there is a need to improve the situation and put an end to child marriages in Sindh. “It is more a social issue than a legal issue. People have not accepted that it is illegal to marry below 18. There is need for public awareness in this regard and Sindh government is going to start aggressive public awareness campaign soon,” he informed Daily Times.However, he defended performance of Child Protection Units diplomatically. “Child Protection Units have been established in all districts but there is still room for improvement in this sector,” Murtaza added.Published in Daily Times, September 10th 2018.