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Express Tribune Editorials – 26th March 2016

Curbing child marriages

On the face of it, the issue of marrying off children is not one that should be a contentious one. Children, since they are unable to take care of themselves, earn a living or deal with the myriad of demands of adult life, are not felt to be capable of entering into legally binding contracts. However sound this reasoning might appear, it is not still capable of swaying the religious bodies of this country into accepting the right of a person to be allowed to choose their life partner after attaining an age when they are equipped with enough knowledge and experience to make such an important decision.

Previous attempts by legislators to safeguard child rights in this regard have been blocked on religious grounds. In 2014, the Council for Islamic Ideology opposed a bill that would have raised the age of marriage to 18 years. Another bill, seeking to amend a law that is nearly a century old is now facing a similar fate after having been referred to the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Religious Affairs on March 24. The bill proposes to raise the penalty for an adult male marrying a child from a one-month imprisonment and a Rs1,000 fine to a one-year imprisonment and a Rs300,000 fine. It is being feared that this bill may meet the same fate as its predecessors because of opposition from the religious right wing.

There is one fine detail, which is ignored while drawing up legislation regarding child marriage. It is assumed that guardians, when making decisions on behalf of their child, have that child’s best interests at heart. Ground realities present a starkly different picture. In many parts of Pakistan, child marriages are used as a means of settling debts or making peace with the enemy. Using examples from our religious traditions to defend horrific realities is allowing the guardians of little girls to use them as chattel and deny them their basic human rights of personhood and independent will as set by Islamic jurisprudence as well as our Constitution. One can only hope that those responsible for formulating laws will pay as much attention to today’s realities as they do to historic precedent when considering this latest bill that seeks to curb child marriage.

A curious incident

Almost nothing has been explained about the circumstances surrounding the detention and deportation of two groups of Pakistani nationals from Russia in the last week. The first group of 84 was sent back having been denied entry at Moscow airport. They were deported directly. A second group of 48 had been sent back via Turkey — a total of 132. The Moscow group had been held at least since the evening of March 23. Reports suggest that they had valid visas issued by Russian authorities and hotel bookings as well. The Russians contended that they were trying to enter the country with insufficient funds to sustain them during their stay. The Russians refused consular access when a Russian-speaking representative of the Pakistan embassy was sent to investigate on the evening of March 23; he later met them the following day. Further reports suggest that those in this group were visiting Russia to attend a conference, but details are not available beyond that.

The incident is unusual because at least the group deported from Moscow airport after being denied entry were in possession of valid travel documents and visas issued by the Russians themselves, who presumably will have screened the applicants as all states do for those applying for entry. If there were any concerns about the legitimacy of their visit, then the visa officers would have refused to make the issue — but they did not. It is also highly irregular for consular access to be denied. The men were not accused or charged with anything and if there was any doubt about their reasons for visiting Russia then they have not been made public. Arguably, Russia was breaching the Geneva Conventions by initially denying consular access. Given the lack of information, we are in the dark as to the reasons for these deportations, and can only speculate that there is a heightened sense of concern around international travellers seeking entry to Western states. We are concerned that this may be an instance of ‘negative profiling’ — and if so it bodes ill for the future Pakistanis travelling abroad. Rapid enlightenment would be warmly welcomed.

Towards inclusivity

Making a relatively rare public appearance, Bilawal Bhutto visited the Hindu community at Umerkot to join in the Holi celebrations on March 24. He spoke of a country where he hoped that Muslims and non-Muslims were treated equally — something that it is painfully obvious that they are not. He regretted that members of minority communities are not, even where it is possible, promoted or appointed to positions of importance. He noted that Sindh — which is home to a significant Hindu population — is soon to pass a law against forced conversions and has already passed the Hindu Marriage Act. It is also the only province to officially declare Holi a public holiday.

It would be all too easy to dismiss Mr Bhutto’s comments as mere fatuous political grandstanding, but he makes valid and timely points. Pakistan has a truly appalling record when it comes to preserving and protecting the rights of all the minority groups that live within its borders. Minorities are routinely discriminated against in every walk of life; their lives are at risk as is their property and livelihoods. There are regular instances where homes are burned, people murdered and all with seeming impunity for the perpetrators. Prosecutions for such acts are exceedingly rare. Leading politicians of all parties — religious parties excepted — make formulaic and stereotypical comments on the parlous state of the minorities but their words are rarely backed by actions. Innumerable reports stretching back decades document the myriad injustices and inequalities suffered by the minorities. There is no shortage of empirical evidence that they are the victims of profound institutionalised discrimination — and yet there is no discernible improvement in their condition. There is a body of legislation that is designed to protect minorities. It is widely ignored and almost never enforced, little more than a politically correct cosmetic designed as much to satisfy international concerns as actually address domestic needs. Whilst we welcome Mr Bhutto’s words, we remain pessimistic as to words becoming deeds.

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