A girl crosses a stream as she walks to school in Margalla Hills, Islamabad, October 24, 2014.

© 2014 Reuters

Pakistan’s Senate chose to mark the United Nations International Day of the Girl Child this week in an unusual way: by rejecting a bill that would have raised the minimum age for girls to marry from 16 to 18. The grounds for rejection? Apparently the proposed amendment was “contrary to religious injunctions,” said the Senate Standing Committee on Interior.

The UN children’s fund says 21 percent of Pakistani girls are married by the age of 18, and 3 percent before 15. Child marriage tends to occur in the country’s most marginalized and vulnerable communities, and has devastating consequences. Children who marry find their childhoods cut short and their education abandoned, as girls take on housework and boys struggle to provide for families they are too young to have. Married children become parents too soon, and girls face serious health risks, including death, due to early pregnancy. Married girls are also at higher risk of domestic violence, including marital rape, than women who marry later.

So why is Pakistan dragging its feet? The current law sets the legal age of marriage at 16 for girls and 18 for boys, which violates Pakistan’s obligations under international law in two ways: first by permitting marriage too early, and secondly by setting different marriage ages for girls and boys. But even this law is rarely enforced, as the Pakistani courts often interpret Sharia (Islamic law) instead, which allows any girl who has gone through puberty to marry.

Some provincial governments have legislated on this issue to try to improve matters, setting higher minimum ages for marriage and harsher penalties for those who arrange or conduct child marriages. But Sharia law is still preferred by the Pakistani courts.

The Pakistani government needs to prohibit underage marriage, and remove the confusion between religious interpretations and federal and provincial laws. Pakistani girls need equality, decent education, and good health care. They don’t need husbands. On the International Day of the Girl, Pakistan’s parliament failed its girls once again.