Child Marriage in Gilgit Baltistan: Policy Vs Politics

By Shah Zaman

In developed countries, the state serves as the primary guardian of children (Humans under 18 years of age), while in developing countries, the family is responsible for protecting their children with little to no contribution from the state. The developed world has adopted an ecosystem of child welfare, ensuring children’s safety, permanence, and well-being. Most peripheral countries unwillingly mimic the core and adopt child rights legislation to fulfill the conditions for aid and to enhance their international image. Assistance from core countries and global civil society organizations, such as the United Nations, has played a pivotal role in elevating human rights standards in developing nations. This collective effort culminated in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC); a landmark agreement aimed at safeguarding the rights of children worldwide. However, despite these advancements, the effective implementation of child rights remains a formidable challenge, hindered by a myriad of political, economic, cultural, and religious barriers. Furthermore, the entrenched classist social structure disproportionately favoring the upper class in most developing countries deterred equal access to child rights.

Pakistan is a signatory of UNCRC and enacted laws at the national and provincial levels under the influence of global neoliberal forces to protect children’s rights. The issue of child marriage has long been a contested space between state, religious, and cultural forces. The state attempted to be a part of the global community and adopted laws to deal with child marriage, but it is still facing resistance. For example, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) provincial assembly could not adopt the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act in 2018/2019 after years of struggle. Currently, Sindh is the only province to replace the colonial era “Child Marriage Restraint Act 1929” with “The Sindh Child Marriages Restraint Act 2014,” setting 18 years as the minimum age for legal marriage in the province for all children, while the Punjab government only amended this nearly 100 years old colonial act in 2015 raising the minimum age to 16 and 18 years for girls and boys respectively.

Gilgit Baltistan (GB), the borderland region, also joined the global community to ensure child rights by adopting the Child Protection Response Act (CPRA17) and the Prohibition of Employment of Children Act in 2017 and 2019, respectively. These brilliantly drafted acts, with the generous facilitation of global civil society organizations, are significant milestones in protecting the rights of mountain children. Yet these acts could not achieve the desirable goals of identifying potential risks to children, setting a child protection plan, responding to child abuse on time, and finally acting against violators. The current case of two minors who abandoned homes and reportedly got married questioned the implementation of these legislations and challenged the state’s global stance of protecting children’s rights.

Initially, when the call of the girl’s parents to report the missing of their daughter fell on deaf ears of law enforcing agencies, the civil society forced the government to do its job after a months-long struggle. The police have finally recovered the girl after more than two months since deserting home and produced her in court. Based on the state records, the girl’s family claims she is 12 years old, while the boy is reportedly 14-15 years old. However, the court in Gilgit Baltistan assigned a medical board to determine the only girl’s age. The step is self-contradictory; the court should have either accepted the birth record from the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) for both the children or ordered the medical board to determine the age of both. The modern biological sciences do not claim to calculate the exact age of humans through any test, and the results are unreliable. Research in the field of aging can estimate the biological age (whether your cells/organs are older/younger than your current age) and not the chronological age (number of birthdays) with a blood tests. The system seems more interested in qualitative age than quantitative age in reaching a conclusion here. Child rights activists believe it was done to provide a base for reconciliation between the families and solve the case midway between the tribal traditions and law with a sugarcoating of the neoliberal justice system.

In the absence of laws stating the minimum age of marriage explicitly in GB, the federal laws apply, which in this case is the British India Child Marriage Restrain Act of 1929, which states the minimum age of legal marriage should be 16 years and 18 years for female and male children, respectively. Thus, the marriage in this case is not legal according to the girl’s family birth records and the act makes those who aided such union punishable. It is also important to note that the girl’s parents also accused a group of people of hijacking their daughter, which, if proved in court, is a severe violation of child rights mentioned in CPRA.

Nevertheless, we need to consider what solutions this act offers in the children’s best interests. What possible penalties could be given to people who facilitated and manipulated these minors to marry, and what does the case, which is the first of its kind in the region, offer for future course correction as it involves children, and the region cannot afford repeated human rights failures especially when it is floating in a liminal space amid global crises.

The GB CPRA17 broadly mentions child marriage as one of the forms of exploitation and abuse. It stresses protecting children from “forced marriage.” As always, matters of law are open to interpretation. This may mean that manipulating minors in any potential way and facilitating them to do anything illegal is a crime like marriage, taking drugs, etc. Hence, this is potentially a forced marriage because the facilitators manufactured the consent of minors to take a responsibility they are not prepared for. CPRA17 mandates the child protection unit at the Department of Social Welfare in Gilgit to launch a thorough assessment and guide the court with a comprehensive protection plan for the children. It mandates the child protection officer of the unit to meet the children and their families and decide, among other things, about the placement of children in alternate care (either parents, guardians, or any state institution). In this case, the girl has reportedly opted not to go home with her parents while the boy is still with his family. A state institution like the National Commission on the Rights of Children (NCRC) is a favorable alternate care unit for children.

This case allows policymakers to adjust for lapses in child-centered policies. One fails to understand why CPRC17 did not explicitly mention the minimum age for legal marriage and only considered the forced marriage of children exploitation. Hence, revision of the act in consultation with the stakeholders is crucial. I suggest adding an article in CPRA17 regarding child marriage clearly stating the age and penalties considering similar legislation in Sindh instead of introducing another child marriage restraint act.

This child marriage case offers an opportunity to reflect upon the administrative preparedness to deal with such cases in the future. CPRA17 clearly outlines the formation of a “child protection commission” linking the social welfare department to all other important ministries, judiciary politicians, and civil society. It was expected in 2017 that the commission will meet every three months to share the progress on children’s rights and recalibrate the state’s response. A network of child protection units in each district with a child protection officer and a detailed procedure for swift response was also one of the highlights of the act. Unfortunately, the administrative machinery has no clue when parents reported the incident. Furthermore, the response also shows a lack of will, wit, and vision to guard the rights of children, which leads to a perception that the act was just a window dressing, a characteristic in matters related to policy making in the third word.

The youth of Gilgit Baltistan are now an active part of its civil society, and they have brought the case to the limelight locally, nationally, and globally. There should be a realization that mountains may block the vision of Gen Z (Generation Z) in physical space, likewise Gen X (generation X), but social media has virtually liberated the seven lakhs Gen Z (people born between 1997 and 2012) in GB to navigate the globe and observe the nature of the relationship between states and citizens. The state’s response to this incident created alienation in the society, and now only justice could fix the social fabric again. The state officials claimed that a paid agent developed a hypothetical thesis of human rights violations in the region; the judiciary has an excellent opportunity to provide an anti-thesis by defending the human rights of its citizens.

The current incident may be the first one where the parents stood for their child’s rights, but those who suffer silently are in the thousands. The multi-indicator cluster survey (MICS) shows that 32% (2398) from a sample of 74488 women across GB are victims of child marriages. This shows the issue’s intensity and implies that the judiciary should deal the case relative to the 32% of the population in GB.

In any normal state with laws to protect children’s rights, this case would have been solved by keeping the privacy of children and families and the civil society would not have gone to this extent. Unfortunately, the pictures and videos of children are viral across all media. The chief justice should also instruct the PTA to remove all the content as the children have a long life ahead, and these images will continue to hurt them. Furthermore, the media coverage should follow the criteria regarding the privacy of children mentioned in CPRA17. Once this justice is done in this case, there should be a convention on the rights of children in GB involving all institutions. The statistics for children in GB are alarming in all areas of child development and probably worst relative to other provinces and countries in the region.

The judicial system of Gilgit-Baltistan is at a crossroads. It can set a precedent in the region by declaring the marriage illegal, sending the children to NCRC for safe custody, punishing the facilitators, and directing the government to amend CPRA17, or it can add another layer to the systematic failures reminding us of what Ronald Reagan said, “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem” (1981 inaugural address).

The writer is a PhD Scholar focusing on Social Policy and Urbanization. 

Related Articles

Back to top button