Unravelling The Reality Of Child Marriage in Pakistan

By Roheen Ahmed and Mariam Faruqi:

The United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) defines child marriage as a formal marriage or informal union before the age of 18. Although statistics show that the practice affects girls in higher percentages, it is a reality for both boys and girls. Each year, 15 million girls are married before the age of 18, that is 28 girls every minute. The consequences of child marriage are innumerable, and these include complications related to early pregnancy, death during childbirth, increased domestic violence and an end to personal growth.

According to UNICEF’s State of the World’s Children Report 2016, 3% of girls in Pakistan below the age of 15, and 21% of those below the age of 18 were married in the previous year. Many of these child marriages take place in remote areas, and are therefore, unreported.

It can be argued, that the tradition of child marriage is embedded in Pakistan’s customary and cultural practices. A murder or land dispute is, in some instances, resolved by an underage girl being offered to the aggrieved party as compensation through rituals such as Swara, Watta Satta, Sang Chatti, Irjaai or Vulvar. These customs are sanctioned and prescribed by a Jirga (or panchayat), that is, a council of the elders from the community who form the local judiciary. This article explains the paradox of customary practices that endorse child marriage in the context of the national legislation which criminalises the practice.

Representative image

Under a Swara or vani marriage, where one party commits a crime against the other party, the offending party offers a virgin female relative to the victim’s family for marriage as compensation. The victim’s family demands approximately three girls, and chooses one out of those offered. Once the girl is selected, a feast is served and the dispute is officially settled. Crimes which can be compensated by the Swara ritual include murder, a land or financial dispute and ‘honour’ related crimes.

Exchange marriage, or Watta Satta, is another custom that enables child marriage. In this scenario, it is arranged between the families that a brother and sister from one family marry corresponding siblings in another family. Some of these cases involve unions between individuals with a substantial age-gap to the extent that one party may not even be born yet. Watta Satta is generally performed to settle property disputes or create marital security. However, it often ends up with violent consequences for the women involved – both physically and psychologically.

In Balochistan, a system of Vulvar* or ‘bride pricing’ is followed.  The father or the brother of the girl, no matter how young, take money from the groom or his family for tying the nuptial knot. In this way, the groom ‘buys’ the girl as a ‘property item’.

Child marriage in Pakistan is criminalised under the Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929. The Act provides that the legal age for a female to marry is 16, while it is 18 for men. The penalty for a person committing a crime under the Act is a mere 1,000 PKR (approximately $10). In February 2017, the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC), 1860, was amended to include a fine of up to 1 million PKR ($9,547) and imprisonment up to 10 years for the offender. In addition, Section 310 of the PPC prohibits the sale and underage marriage of girls.

In May 2017, the National Assembly rejected the draft of the Child Marriage Restraint Act for the second time.The draft proposed increasing the legal age for marriage of women from 16 to 18. On the other hand, the provincial legislation has taken significant strides. For example, the Sindh government adopted the change regarding the minimum age in 2014 through the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act.

While there has been a decrease in child marriage in Pakistan over the years due to the stricter penalties imposed by the updated legislation, there is still a long way to go. The battle between local customs and national legislation continues. In February this year, a man who committed adultery was ordered by the local Jirga to give his two girl children (aged eight and two) and a monetary fine as compensation to the family of the woman he had committed adultery.

Cases such as this reveal that despite the stricter laws in place, law-makers desperately need to improve the implementation of the law and the public awareness regarding the law – while also developing mechanisms to manage the local legal systems and keeping them in line with not only national but also international standards.

*‘Generally there are two types of bride prices in the district – vulvar and dowry. The vulvar is the payment in cash or kind by the groom’s family to the bride’s family.’


iProbono hopes to empower vulnerable individuals by sharing content that raises awareness around legislation, case laws and constitutional provisions available to them.

Roheen Ahmed is a former intern with iProbono in Pakistan. Mariam Faruqi is iProbono’s regional director, South Asia. 

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Featured image used for representative purposes only.

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