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Alliance of men & boys working to end child marriage launched in Pakistan

Qamar Nassem, coordinator of MEN UNiTE, at Girls Not Brides meeting in New Delhi in 2012. Photo credit: Tom Pietrasik | Girls Not Brides

The largest Pakistani alliance working with men for gender equality was launched in Peshawar this week. Made of over 2,200 organisations, networks and individuals, MEN UNiTE (Men Against Violence and Abuse) wants to change the fate of girls – and boys – in Pakistan.

The group’s first demand? That the government adopts laws and policies to end child marriage in Pakistan, where 1 in 5 children are married off before age 18.

Attention to child marriage in Pakistan at an “all-time high”

MEN UNiTE comes at a timely moment. According to Qamar Naseem, the national coordinator of the alliance, “attention to child marriage in Pakistan is at an all-time high”.

Last year, a new Child Marriage Restraint Act was tabled in the National Assembly and, although it was rejected, it sparked a nationwide debate. In Sindh, the Provincial Assembly adopted a landmark bill which prohibited child marriages. In December, the Assembly of Punjab adopted a resolution to put an “end to underage marriages”, while the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly is expected to table a bill on child marriage later in 2015. (Update: in March 2015, the Assembly of Punjab adopted the Child Marriage Restraint Act. The act increases the possible jail term for perpetrating child marriage from 1 month to 6 months and raises the potential fine from Rs 1,000 to Rs 50,000 for both parents and clerics. However, the act does not raise the age of marriage, currently 16 years old for boys and girls.)

And when the Council of Islamic Ideology described efforts to end child marriage as “un-Islamic”, civil society, journalists and a number of religious leaders spoke out against the comments.

Building on this momentum, MEN UNiTE is making an end to child marriage its top priority. In a charter addressed to the government, the alliance urges Pakistan to adopt legislation against child marriage and asks for a stronger implementation of the laws.

Getting men on board

Legislative efforts are promising but they can only go so far, especially if they happen in isolation. Without building support within communities, child marriages will continue to go unchallenged across the country. According to Qamar, the failure to engage men is partly to blame. He explains:

“Pro-women laws in Pakistan are not implemented and are, by and large, rejected because little effort is made to reach the communities, especially not the men. Many don’t buy into these laws. They feel criminalised and left behind. But there are a large number of men who are ready to change. They just need a little help.”

This is where MEN UNiTe comes in. “We want it to be a movement of men standing with women and girls in the fight against violence,” continues Qamar. If gender equality is to become a reality in Pakistan and if we want to protect women and girls against violence, “we must bring back men into the picture and induce a culture where they take action against violence.”

Starting a conversation on violence

This means reaching out to young men and men in positions of influence and starting a conversation about violence – not just the violence they sometimes commit or tacitly condone, but the violence that affects them too.

“Let’s talk about boys who are married off. They are burdened with financial responsibilities, unable to support their families. It is not just girls who are unable to marry by choice. The choice of marriage is made by the elders, the parents – not the boy or the girl,” Qamar explained.

The conversation on child marriage in Pakistan is unprecedented but MEN UNiTE feel that it needs to be more inclusive. It is only when men come on board and join efforts to end child marriage that these promises for change will finally bear fruit.

Follow MEN UNiTE on social media: @MEN_UNiTE on Twitter and MEN UNiTE on Facebook

The steering committee of MEN UNiTE includes: Blue Veins, Da Hawa Lur, Sustainable Rights and Development Organization, Peace Justice and Youth Organization, and Citizen Rights and Sustainable Development Organization (CRSD).