By Zahid Hussain and Kamran Chaudhry
The issue of divorce is shaping as a thorny issue, as Pakistan looks to overhaul its 145-year-old Christian matrimony laws drawn up during British colonial times.
On Oct. 25, a delegation of Christian leaders, women activists and human rights campaigners met with Pakistani Minister for Human Rights, Mumtaz Ahmed Tarar, to discuss new provisions in the Christian Marriage and Divorce Bill, 2017.
Matrimony and divorce are currently covered by the Christian Marriage Act of 1872 and the Christian Divorce Act, enacted in 1869. But the government wants to review the legislation as some provisions are seen as obsolete, too rigid and unjust, discriminatory against women and smacking of colonial rule.
“The ministry will forward the proposed Christian Marriage and Divorce Bill, 2017 to the federal Law Ministry for vetting,” Tarar told the delegation. “The bill will be tabled in the national assembly for approval once it is approved by the law ministry in line with the recommendations of the Christian community.”
The Christian delegation demanded that all provisions in the bill be in accordance with the Bible, a statement by the ministry said.
In a study of family laws for religious minorities published last year, the Catholic bishop’s National Commission for Justice and Peace (NJCP) proposed domestic violence and sexual violence, mental or terminal physical illness, and intentionally not fulfilling any financial, emotional or physical obligations are reasonable grounds for annulment of a marriage.
The suggestions were incorporated in a joint submission last year by eight Pakistan mainstream churches for the proposed new legislation.
“We don’t support divorce, but there are several provisions for the annulment of marriage in Canon Law. For example, if someone is kidnapped or hiding his impotency to get married, we believe that matrimony never took place,” Bishop Joseph Arshad, chairperson of the NCJP told ucanews.com.
Ayra Inderias, the female leader of the Christian delegation, cited confusion among political and religious leaders for the delay of the proposed bill.
“The women lawmakers support other grounds for divorce but the Christian politicians are taking a hardline. Church of Pakistan bishops are divided on this issue and the Canon Law of the Catholic Church is too far from the realities on the ground,” she said.
Asha Thama, a representative of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, said that human rights issues must not be ignored in the Marriage and Divorce Bill.
“Unlike the past, new socio-economic realities have emerged which need to be viewed along modern lines regarding marriage as well as divorce,” Thama said. “The state must take responsibility for every citizen irrespective of his or her faith and should guarantee their fundamental rights in any legislation.”
“There are many justified grounds for annulment of marriage other than adultery. In some cases, some people go abroad for jobs and don’t return for years,” he said. “The legislation should be done in a way that it doesn’t hurt religious sentiments and ensures the rights of women, widows and children.”
Jennifer Jag Jivan, a Christian women’s rights activist, who was part of the consultative and consensus building process, endorsed the NCJP proposals on the new bill.
According to the proposed Marriage Bill 2017, the minimum age for marriage is 18 years for both males and females. The consent of a parent or guardian to marry has been omitted as a minimum age has been set.
The new bill also proposes penalties for false oaths, declarations, notices and certificates.
The existing Christian Divorce Act has only a few grounds for divorce; incest and bigamy.
The new bill covers other issues for grounds for dissolution of a marriage, including infectious diseases and infertility. The bill proposes that preliminary medical examination be mandatory before solemnization of marriage, as a precautionary measure.