Early marriage deprives a girl of the right to a healthy childhood and quality education, which can empower her socially and politically. Pakistan is the sixth-largest owner of underage girls in the world. Factors for early marriage include poverty, tradition, customs, religious beliefs, poor legislation, inadequate law enforcement, and an inadequate birth registry. Early marriage also has a negative impact on the economic growth and development of a nation. According to a 2017 study by the World Bank, by 2030, developing countries will lose billions of dollars on child marriage. In the last 12 months, 24.3 per cent of cases of domestic violence have been reported among 15-19-year-old girls. Child marriage can also lead to risky pregnancies for girls and sexually transmitted infections or death. One in ten girls aged 15-19 is aware of their health care, making large household purchases, and visiting their family or relatives. Pakistan’s Child Marriage Restriction Act 1929 sets the legal age of marriage for boys at 18 and girls at 16. In April 2014, the Sindh Assembly passed the Sindh Child Marriage Restriction Act, which raised the minimum age for both girls and boys to 18 years, which is punishable by law. In an attempt to crack down on marriage, the Penal Code has been amended to provide harsher punishments for perpetrators. According to a 2013 UNICEF report, 21 per cent of girls in Pakistan were married off before the age of 18. According to the Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey (PDHS) 2018-2017, 3.6 per cent of girls under the age of 15 are married while 18.3 per cent of girls under the age of 18 are married. However, according to UNICEF, 21 per cent of Pakistani girls get married before the age of 18 and three per cent before the age of 15. According to UNICEF, marriage before the age of 18 is a “fundamental violation of human rights.” The matter of child marriage has still troubled our society. It overlooks the most backward and weaker sections of the country. In many regions of Pakistan, boys and girls get married early, but a large number of girls fall prey to this ancient custom. This process stems largely from gender inequality and patriarchal cultural norms in society and is further perpetuated by weak legislation. In 2020, there were 119 reported cases of child marriage in the country, of which 95 per cent were girls and five per cent were boys, according to a report by an Islamabad-based NGO working for child protection. Marriage is an agreement between two parties. Entering into a marriage contract and taking care of your affairs requires not only physical maturity but also the right decision. Consent is also a condition for marriage in which both parties must be able to freely accept or reject as they wish. The question is, are children mentally mature enough to know what is good or bad for them? A few months ago, Dua Zahra and Nimrah Kazmi, both 14-year-old girls, went missing from Karachi. Police traced the two girls. According to UNICEF, marriage before the age of 18 is a “fundamental violation of human rights.” Sindh is the only province in Pakistan that has updated a law passed in 1929 that prohibits marriages before the age of 18. In 2014, the Sindh Assembly unanimously passed the Sindh Child Marriage Restriction Act, raising the legal minimum age for marriage between boys and girls to 18 years. It made the act a more punishable offence. A man over 18 years who marries a child can be imprisoned for up to three years. Men who marry young can also imprison for two to three years. Even parents or guardians who allow marriage can be sued for failing to prevent it. In 2015, Punjab amended the Child Marriage Restraint Ordinance 1971 and passed the Punjab Marriage Restraint Act 2015. It increased imprisonment and fines but kept the legal age of marriage at 16 years. “The Child Marriage Act and the Rules ought to be simplified and made foolproof. It must be mandatory for the bride and the groom to be above 18 and in possession of valid CNIC cards,” noted analyst Naeem Sadiq. In 2017, Senator Sehar Kamran introduced a bill in the National Assembly to increase the minimum age of marriage for girls from 16 to 18 years. However, a PPP standing committee headed by Rehman Malik rejected the bill, saying it was against Islamic rules. The bill was then sent to the Islamic Ideological Council, where it is still under consideration. In 2018, the chairman of IIC announced that marriage can take place at any age, but Ruksati can only accept after the age of 18. Poverty is the biggest reason for child marriage, said Qaiser Khan, a political activist in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. “In the newly merged tribal districts and Malakand district, people receive between Rs 500,000 and Rs 200 million from men who want to marry their younger daughters. Most of these men are already married, ” Our society needs to change its attitude towards girls. The only solution to the economic or financial problem is not to marry girls at a very young age but to get them a better education instead of enforcing them to get married. They can grow up to be wholesome, successful, and independent citizens. The writer is a content producer and an aspiring journalist.