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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- A proposed law seeking tough new penalties for marrying children has triggered intense debate in Pakistan.
At the moment, females can legally tie the knot at 16 while males must wait until they are 18. However, it is customary for younger teen girls to be married by their families in some parts of the country. Girls are also sometimes offered as compensation to end feuds between families.
Anyone involved in underage wedlock currently faces a $10 fine, possibly accompanied by up to a month in jail. But lawmaker Marvi Memon is fighting for this to be increased to $1,000 - which is about a month's wage for a recent graduate working at a bank -- and a possible jail sentence of two years.
"These girls are being treated as cattle," Memon told NBC News. "They are dying. We cannot have little girls being married off at 15 and 16 and being forced to produce kids. It doesn’t make sense medically, and it doesn’t make sense economically."
According to UNICEF's State of the World's Children Report 2014, seven percent of Pakistani girls are married under the age of 15.
“Our prime objective is to ensure that our women are productive members of society,” Memon added. “For that to happen the injustices that are meted out to these child brides have to be curbed.”
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Her bill in the country's National Assembly has been met with fierce opposition from Pakistan’s conservative religious parties, including her own. And some clerics want the penalties scrapped altogether. Pakistan's government does not track the issue or keep statistics on child marriage and few cases are reported to police.
Memon's battle has been dubbed by some as "Marvi vs. Mullahs" and #mullahsvsmarvi trended briefly on Twitter, a rare religious debate on the country's social-media scene.
Arguing that even the current laws forbidding child marriage contradict the Koran, the influential chair of the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) has spoken out against the proposals.
Maulana Muhammad Khan Sherani believes that parliament could not legislate laws which are against the teachings of the Quran. He did not return repeated calls seeking comment from NBC News.
Gibran Peshimam, the political editor of Pakistan’s influential Express Tribune newspaper, highlighted that Sherani's advisory body wields considerable power.
“The CII’s edicts may not be legally binding, strictly speaking, but they have enough value to affect legislation," he said. “Basically, the CII is meant to interpret laws and legislation by done by parliament to ensure that the basic provision in Pakistan’s Constitution, that 'no law shall be made repugnant to the Quraan and Sunnah (the Muslim way of life),' is followed.'"
Under Islamic tradition, any person is free to marry after reaching puberty, according to Werner Menski, a professor of South Asian laws at SOAS, University of London.
After the Islamic contract of marriage has been agreed upon and a dowry paid, if the bride consents to marriage the argument has traditionally been that God has heard the offer. That makes it binding under Islamic law and sex would be permitted, Menski added.
"They are not physically and mentally ready"
Once married, young girls can become isolated and they are often forced into early sex, according to Ann Warner, a senior gender and youth specialist at the International Center for Research on Women.
“This leads to early pregnancy and very high risk pregnancy,” she said. “Younger girls are at a much higher risk of death and disability during pregnancy and their children are also at much higher risk of not surviving and dying as young children."
Warner said that early marriage "has an extremely negative impact on their lives."
She added: “They are not physically and mentally ready. They are almost always pulled out of school so their potential for education is cut off and with that, their potential to work and contribute to their societies both economically and socially.”
Marilyn Crawshaw, who is involved with a non-governmental organization that works with women in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region of Pakistan, said such marriages put girls' health and welfare at risk.
“If you children as some sort of bargaining chip or commodity that has a value attached to it, that is always bad for them," said Crawshaw, who is chairwoman of the UK Friends of Khwendo Kor. "The price is paid by the child."
Memon, who launched the bill, says she plans to turn the tables on clerics opposing the tougher penalties by using Islamic doctrine to justify it.
“Islam is the religion which is the most progressive for women,” she said. “We are looking forward to the committee hearing where we will give Islamic arguments and data from Islamic countries to prove that the amendments we are suggesting are Islamic, democratic and progressive.”
Henry Austin reported from London. Reuters contributed to this report.