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, which is majority 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 becomes the second Pakistani province (out of four) to adopt 18 as the minimum marriage age for both genders, advocates have faced challenges trying to toughen and enforce penalties on those who violate existing laws.

Shortly after last month’s ruling, the Provincial Assembly of the Punjab introduced a bill that would result in severe penalties for adults engaging in child marriages as well as for those facilitating such unions, including parents or guardians. Offenders could face imprisonment of up to two years and/or a substantial fine of up to 2 million Pakistani rupees (about $7,200 USD).

While many Christian and other religious minority groups support such legislation and are thankful for the court’s ruling, not everyone agrees on its efficacy. CT asked four leaders on whether the legal system is effective in curtailing forced marriages and conversions. Their responses are arranged from “no” to “maybe” to “yes.”

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Asher Sarfraz, chief executive, Christians’ True Spirit, a ministry for children in poverty, Lahore

The Lahore High Court’s decision, as triumphant as it may sound, is insufficient without a societal shift. Passing an order at the judiciary level will not bring any change, because the order has to be implemented by law enforcement agencies. If these agencies are not willing to carry the change and to allow victims’ families to feel secure in bringing their grievances to them, and to assure that unbiased procedures would be followed to bring justice, then no amount of judgments will lead to a change.

Child marriage is strongly knitted into the culture of Pakistan, and breaking the age-old chain requires a total shift not only in the mindset of people but also on the various levels of law enforcement authorities, who have to help uphold the law and carry out unbiased actions. Therefore, I believe there will be no impact on cases of forced conversion and forced marriages.

In 2014, the Pakistani supreme court mandated the government to organize a federal task force to promote religious tolerance and to set up a council to monitor the rights and safeguards provided to minorities under the constitution. But even after ten years, it has not been fully implemented.

Making child marriage unacceptable in Pakistan relies on educating the public, training judges and officials, and challenging the religious beliefs that justify child marriage. Ending this pernicious practice will require a multipronged effort uniting government, civil society, and communities nationwide.

Ruby Naeem John, codirector, Bethel Evangelistic Organization, Islamabad

I am not sure whether the changes to the Child Marriage Restraint Act will prevent forced marriages, because I believe that by only changing the law, change will not happen. The mentality of people also must be changed.

In general, the church in Pakistan needs to strengthen and disciple families through family ministry, and churches must do a better job educating Christian families about the consequences of marrying off their minor daughters or letting their sons marry minor girls.

Unfortunately, in the last few decades, Christian boys haven’t prioritized education and thus end up economically weak. At times, Christian minor girls are inclined to marry Muslim men because they see their financial future secure with them. We need to help economically empower our Christian boys. Christians must learn to take responsibility for their actions and not blame everything on forced conversions.

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I do agree that there are genuine cases of abduction and forced conversion of minor girls, and that strict implementation of the law in the future may curtail this crime.

Peter Jacob, executive director, Centre for Social Justice, a research and advocacy organization

We welcome this new decision from court that comes nearly 100 years after the 1929 Child Marriage Restraint Act was enacted, a progressive and historic decision that sought to protect the rights of women and, especially those who are minority.

More than 70 percent of girls who are abducted or who willingly flee with Muslim men, and then are converted and married, are underage. If this law is implemented in letter and spirit, it will help prevent forced conversions.

The advantage of having the law is that at least people can have recourse to law and justice. That said, laws do not become operative by themselves—they only serve as a deterrence. The judges know it, the lawyers know it, and that awareness contributes to implementation of the law indirectly. Nevertheless, in case of a violation, the matter has to be brought to the court in the process of law.

This bill, at least, is a step in the right direction, even though no one can use it to challenge any marriage right now, until all legal formalities are complete and it becomes a law. But the mere presence of such a bill will at least have persuasive value.

According to UNICEF, 18.9 million girls in Pakistan are married before they attain the age of 18 and 4.6 million before they turn 16. Anybody contracting marriage with a girl under 16 is already against the law. Those violations are already happening and can be stopped by exercising the existing law.

Azhar Mushtaq, general secretary, Pakistan Bible Society, Lahore

The proposed legislation, once implemented, will fundamentally counter the reprehensible practice of forced marriages involving minors, particularly girls as young as 12 or 14 years old. At such an impressionable age, these children can easily be subjugated through threats and coercion into marriages. The law recognizes that an 18-year-old is more developmentally equipped to evaluate such a monumental decision.

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However, the harsh reality is that even adults can fall victim to being deceived, compelled, or abducted into marital arrangements. So, while the legislation cannot eradicate all instances, its core purpose is to erect legal safeguards to protect society’s most vulnerable—innocent children—from being exploited and robbed of their formative years.

Despite present judicial measures and oversight, bad actors can still exert insidious influence to intimidate and pressure a minor girl into falsely professing a consent she doesn’t actually possess in her heart and mind. This law endeavors to be a safeguard defending these vulnerable young lives from such repugnant coercion.

Undeniably, there are certain areas in Pakistan where the implementation of this law may prove challenging. These areas are dominated by influential individuals, and law enforcement agencies are powerless against them. The masses in these regions operate according to their own whims, disregarding the law.

But this legislation represents vital progress in recognizing and combating what is inexcusable, and one hopes that this will become a shield for those that are most susceptible to exploitation through such antiquated and abhorrent marital practices.

[ This article is also available in العربية. ]