Minorities in Pakistan
await marriage legislation

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By Khadija Mughal

The marriage and divorce bill of Christians has been pending for years and over three million members of the community in Pakistan are facing issues relating to marriage and divorce.

Marriage and divorce-related complications have increased for Christians after the 18th amendment under which religious matters and marriage issues were devolved to the provinces. And none of the provinces have drafted its own laws on the matter.

The current laws governing the marriage and separation of Christians in Pakistan were the Christian Divorce Act 1869 and Christian Marriage Act 1872.

The National Lobbying Delegation for Minority Rights urged the federal and provincial to pass the Christian Marriage and Divorce Bill 2021 from both houses of parliament as quickly as possible.

The lack of Christian Marriage and Divorce bill in Pakistan is encouraging couples who wish to remarry to convert to Islam.

Christian marriage issues are governed by colonial-era Christian Marriage Act 1872, the Christian Divorce Act 1869 and the Succession Act 1925 laws in Pakistan. After the independence of Pakistan, Christians were allowed to follow the UK’s marriage-related laws.

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The UK Matrimonial Causes Act 1857, ‘took marriage out of the jurisdiction of the church and gave civil courts the authority to adjudicate on all disputes related to it’, while the UK Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 provided that a petition could be filed for divorce on the grounds of irretrievable breakdown of marriage. This went beyond adultery and desertion, also allowing divorce in the case ‘that the respondent has behaved in such a way that the petitioner cannot reasonably be expected to live with the respondent’.

Christians in Pakistan sometimes have to convert to Islam, only to be able to divorce their spouse and marry someone else. But those who convert for remarriage or any other purpose cannot return to their Christian faith.

Many Christian women remain trapped in abusive marriages as they cannot separate from their husbands without alleging and proving charges of adultery, or else converting to Islam. In less severe cases, where the husband and wife agree on a lack of understanding with each other, the couple is still forced for the rest of their lives to fulfil vows which were taken at the time of their marriage.

“We have prepared the Christian Marriage and Divorce Bill by consulting relevant stakeholders. They have acknowledged that there were several issues which were required to be resolved,” said Federal Minister for Human Rights Shireen Mazari.

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“Our government has taken a rights-based approach to protect the rights of minorities guaranteed by the constitution. Women and minorities are among the most vulnerable sections of society and thus require special safeguards to ensure that their rights are protected,” she added.

Mazari maintained that the beauty of Pakistan lies in the diversity of people from various religious and social backgrounds, which also enriches society. “Islam gives us the responsibility to respect all religions. Pakistan is among the countries which provides personal laws to minorities, including the Hindu Marriage Bill,” she added.

Ayra Indrias, head of women desk at the Church of Pakistan, lecturer at Kinnaird College Women University said that the new bill will benefit the Christians, especially women.

“Several clauses in the existing law do not even fit in the society such as 13-year-old girl’s marriage, and the draft has enhanced the minimum age of marriage for girls to 18 years,” Indrias added.

She said the proposed bill also takes the Christian family laws from the civil courts to the family courts.

She also cited several other international laws that were being violated under the Christian Divorce Act’ 1869 and Christian Marriage Act 1872.

Human rights activists urge the government to uphold human rights in favour of Christians and the legal experts said the fundamental rights of religious freedom cannot be suppressed.

National Assembly adopted a draft bill, but it has not yet been passed it into law. Experts maintain it remains a historic and much-needed legislation and directly affects the lives of over four million citizens of Pakistan. The reiterated that any further delay in the presentation of the bill will only lead to more suffering.