Lahore - Parents and clerics in Pakistan's most populous Punjab province who allow the marriage of underage children will face greater penalties than before as the provincial assembly has passed changes to a law.
The Punjab Child Marriage Restraint Act, which previously provided for a month-long prison sentence and a fine of Rs 1 000 for parents of children but spared clerics solemnising the marriage contract, increased penalties to a six-month prison term and a fine of Rs 50 000 for the parents and the cleric.
A non-governmental organisation, Sahil, in its annual report 'The Cruel Number 2013' recorded 96 cases of child marriages in the country, an increase of 21% from 2012, with about 43% of the cases in Sindh province, 30% in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and 25% cases in Punjab.
No case of early child marriage was reported from Balochistan. The report revealed that 57.14% of cases were registered with the police. The Sindh Assembly passed a Child Marriage Restraint Act in 2013, making it the first provincial assembly to do so.
Madadgar National Helpline recorded 42 cases against early and forced marriages in just the first four months of 2014 across Pakistan.
Khawar Mumtaz, chair of the National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW), a statutory body established in 2000, said child marriage destroys the life of a girl.
Also read: Malawi bans child marriage, lifts minimum age to 18
"It deprives her of education, right to development and growth and exposes her to health risks and gender-based violence," she said.
Early motherhood is a direct consequence of child marriage, which has a serious and ongoing negative effects on the life and health of under-age mothers. According to the latest Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey, 8% of adolescent women, aged 15-19 years, are already mothers or pregnant with their first child.
Arshad Mahmood Director of Advocacy and Campaigns for the charity Save the Children, said that early marriages also increase the maternal mortality rate which stands at 276 per 100 000 live births, nationally.
"At this rate and with only less than 300 days left to the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) deadline, Pakistan is not on track to meet the target of reducing maternal mortality," he said.
The Punjab Provincial Commission on the Status of Women has set up a helpline for registering reports of child marriages.