Forced Marriage Overseas: Pakistan

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Individuals from the United States will likely face serious hurdles and risks if trying to avoid and/or escape a forced marriage in Pakistan. Although the government recently strengthened laws addressing violence against women, incidents of forced marriage, honor crimes, and domestic violence are still widespread. Laws protecting women and girls are poorly enforced and disregarded in certain regions, and it can be difficult for women to access help and resources in country.

The U.S. Embassy reports that it continues to respond to numerous cases of U.S. women who are tricked into traveling to Pakistan for forced marriages, with certain victims facing threats of violence.1 In 2012, the U.K.’s Forced Marriage Unit reported that almost half of the cases it handled involved individuals from the United Kingdom being taken abroad to Pakistan for marriage.2

For further information and guidance for individuals from the U.S. that are facing or fleeing a forced marriage in Pakistan, please contact the Forced Marriage Initiative.

Marriage in Pakistan

Women and girls in Pakistan have certain legal rights when entering into or attempting to dissolve a marriage, but deference to traditional practices and poor response by law enforcement create serious hurdles for those trying to stop or leave a forced marriage. A series of laws which pertain to the principal religious communities in the Pakistan govern marriage in county,3 with the Muslim Family Law Ordinance regulating the majority Muslim population. The age of consent for marriage of both men and women under this Ordinance and Muslim Personal Law (Sharia’h) is when an individual reaches puberty.4

While the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929 attempted to set an age of marriage at 18 for males and 16 for females, with punishments for guardians and those solemnizing underage marriages, the penalties are too low to have much deterrent effect.5 Tribal customs play an important role in many communities, and marriage laws may be interpreted and enforced through tribal elders and jirgas (councils of elders).6 Generally, there is no strict enforcement of minimum marriage age laws and there is limited remedies for victims if they are violated.7

Divorce in Pakistan is more difficult for women to initiate and obtain than for men,8 and – in certain regions of Northern Pakistan – it may be nearly impossible for a woman to dissolve her marriage without her husband’s and family’s consent. In these areas, women that request a divorce risk being ostracized from their communities and becoming victims of potential honor violence.9

Potential Risks and Protections in Country

Although abduction of an individual for the purpose of forced marriage is a criminal offense in Pakistan,10 it is one of, if not the most, widespread reported crime against women in the country.11 Pakistan has also passed laws to try and prevent “bride burning” and dowry related violence (often initiated when a bride’s in-laws decide her dowry is insufficient)12 as well as acid attacks, which have recently increased in frequency and may occur when a women has refused or attempted to leave a marriage.13 However, these laws are often ineffectual and poorly enforced. There is currently no law prohibiting domestic violence in Pakistan.14 Honor related violence is not uncommon, with several thousand honor killings in Pakistan in the past decade and hundreds reported in 2013.15 Women may be reluctant to report forced marriage situations and other threats of violence (or press charges) due to fear of dishonoring the family and violent reprisals.16

Law enforcement’s response to violence against women is minimal, largely due to deeply rooted societal gender bias, inconsistent court rulings, and the government’s view that such issues are private family matters. Rather than filing charges, authorities typically respond to domestic violence situations by encouraging the parties to reconcile or by returning women to their abusive family members, and treating cases of domestic violence as non-criminal matters.17 Corruption is also widespread within law enforcement and governmental agencies in certain areas of Pakistan, and families may be able to use bribery to influence authorities’ response.18 As noted earlier, certain parts of Pakistan are also governed by tribal law and custom, and women may have little protection from family and community sanctioned violence in such areas.

There are state run agencies and shelters (including the Shaheed Benazir Bhutto centers) that are dedicated to providing assistance to victims of forced marriage and other forms of gender-based violence in Pakistan, as well as a growing NGO community offering shelter and services in country.

Special Challenges in Returning to the United States

Individuals from the US that are fleeing forced marriage situations in Pakistan may face significant challenges in leaving through airports and land borders, particularly if their documents have been confiscated. When leaving Pakistan, a traveler must present a valid passport and exit visa; without such documents individuals may be subject to possible fines and arrest.19 There have been reports of Pakistani authorities working with family members of forced marriage victims to prevent departure from the county. Please check the entry and exit requirements for Pakistan for the most up to date information.

Get Help

  • The Tahirih Justice Center Forced Marriage Initiative
    We are available to help individuals from the United States who are facing or fleeing forced marriage in Pakistan, including providing phone, text, and email support, connecting with the U.S. government and local resources, and coordinating shelter and services back in the United States.
  • The U.S. State Department
    The State Department is available to assist U.S. citizens that are victims of forced marriage with replacement of travel documents and return travel to the United States. However, in Pakistan, State Department response and assistance may be limited at times due to demonstrations and other security disruptions in country. For updated information and travel alerts, please visit the department’s webpage on international travel in Pakistan.
  • U.S. Embassy Islamabad
    Contact the embassy in the case of an emergency.
    Tel: (+92) (51) 201-4000

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1 Department of State, Pakistan – Local Laws and Special Circumstances, available at (last visited Jan. 14, 2015).
2 IRIN, Forced Marriages: In Kashmir, Old Habits Die Hard, The Express Tribune (Nov. 25, 2013), available at
3 Ali Ishfaq, Manual of Family Laws: with all amendments and up-to-date case law, 4th Edition (2012).
4 Muslim Family Laws Ordinance of 1961, Section 2.
5 Pakistan Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929, Sections 2, 4, and 5; Shirkat Gah Women’s Resource Centre, Submission on child, early and forced marriage (2013), available at
6 Mehreen Zahra-Malik, Child Brides Blot Tribal Pakistan: Practice of Gifting Girls in Marriage to Settle Tribal Disputes Haunts Areas with Limited Government Oversight (Oct. 24, 2012), available at (last visited March 3, 2014); Shirkat Gah Women’s Resource Centre, Submission on child, early and forced marriage (2013), available at
7 Human Rights Watch, World Report 2014: Pakistan, available at
8 Karin Carmit Yefet, The Constitution and Female-Initiated Divorce in Pakistan: Western Liberalism in Islamic Garb, 34 HARVARD J. OF LAW & GENDER 553, 558 (2011).
9 Jocelyn Richard, Women in Northern Pakistan – Protected by Tribe, Territory or Taliban, 3 UCL HUMAN RIGHTS REVIEW 236, 252 (2010).
10 Pakistan Penal Code (Act XLV of 1860), Sections 365B and 368.
11 Free & Fair Election Network, Increase in Cases of Forced Marriages: A Report Based on Monitoring of 84 DPO Offices Across Pakistan (Mar. 15, 2012), available at
12 Pakistan Dowry and Bridal Gifts (Restriction) Rules 1976; Human Rights Watch, Crime or Custom? Violence Against Women in Pakistan (1999), available at (last visited Jan. 21, 2014).
13 Acid Survivors Trust International, Survivor Stories, available at (last visited Jan. 14, 2015); Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Bill (2011); Jane Welsh, “It was like burning in hell”: A Comparative Exploration of Acid Attack Violence, Center for Global Initiatives Carolina Papers on International Health (2009), available at
14 Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices – Pakistan (2012), available at (last visited Jan. 27, 2014).
15 Human Rights Watch, World Report 2014: Pakistan, available at
16 Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices – Pakistan (2012), available at (last visited Jan. 27, 2014).
17 Human Rights Watch, Crime or Custom? Violence Against Women in Pakistan (1999), available at (last visited Jan. 21, 2014).
18 Akbar Nasir Khan, Country Report – Pakistan, United Nations Asia and Far East Institute (2005), available at; Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, Pakistan: Domestic violence, including the effectiveness of the Protection of Women (Criminal Laws Amendment) Act, 2006; state protection and services available to victims (2013), available at
19 Department of States, U.S. Passports & International Travel – Pakistan, available at (last visited Feb. 2, 2014).