Child bride tradition survives in Pakistan, despite laws

By Izhar Ullah  |  Aug. 26, 2013 at 12:31 PM
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PESHAWAR, Pakistan, Aug. 26 (UPI Next) --

In poor, remote parts of rural Pakistan, some families still follow the tribal tradition of marrying off their daughters to men decades older, usually to end a feud, in defiance of measures to outlaw the age-old practice.

In the northwestern province Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, girls are still being handed over as child brides in the mountainous northwestern districts of Chitral, Kohistan, Malakand and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

"I was sold to my husband's disabled friend after losing my first husband in the war in Afghanistan in the 1970s. I have lived a terrible life with this disabled man as my husband, as he cannot contribute to household expenses or give time to my children," Bibi Sherena, 40, told UPI Next.

Sherena was married off by her family at the age of 10. She now works as a housemaid in the provincial capital, Peshawar, to support her three children.

A tribal tradition known as 'swara' or 'vani,' which allows feuds to be resolved by families handing over their girls in marriage, is one of the main forces behind the child bride practice.

Some families are desperate to see their girls married before they engage in any pre-marital relations, considered profound sources of shame.

Sherena came from a poor family and used to go with her father to work on farms and tend livestock.

"Some of my relatives asked my father for my hand in marriage to their son. He refused, saying I was still a baby and could not yet get married. But my relatives insisted, saying 'if she can work for your family, then why not for us?'" she recalled in an emotional interview with UPI Next.

"My father betrothed me to a man aged 30. After seven to eight tiresome years, my husband disappeared in Afghanistan where he'd gone to fight against the Russians. My husband's brother sold me to my husband's disabled friend, who was not able to work and or look after my child. He used to beat me," she said.

"As I am the only earner for my entire family I work as a housemaid. That's how I look after my children. Due to poverty, neither of my two sons has been educated."

Sherena became pregnant with her first child at 12. She had to bind her belly with rope tied around her neck for support, because her small body could not bear the weight of her unborn child.

UNICEF statistics for 1987 to 2005 show 63 percent of females in rural Khyber Pakhtunkhwa married before they were 20 years old.

Islamic studies specialist Miraj-ul-Islam Zia said the Koran states young people should marry "when they reach the age of puberty and maturity."

"Islam believes in puberty and maturity of the child, not in age limits," Zia, who heads the Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Peshawar, told UPI Next.

"Maturity means that a child should know regarding right and wrong, and Islam allows a child to get married if he or she is physically and financially fit."

Nazish Sikandar, a gynecologist at the Khyber Teaching Hospital in Peshawar, said early marriages harm the health of adolescent or teenage girls and their babies.

"Many complications arise, including premature birth, lung immaturity, which can cause death at the time of delivery, and heart problems, which mean the newborns can't survive for long," she said.

"The majority die in the womb. Congenital abnormalities and mental retardation also occur in babies born to mothers who are still children themselves. Such babies are often underweight and cannot survive for long.”

The 1929 Child Restraint Act states that men over 18 years old who marry underage girls are to be punished with one month's jail or a fine of 1,000 rupees, which at current conversion rates is equal to $10. A law enacted last year in Punjab province, the Child Marriage Prohibition Act, sets a jail term of just one year.

"The sentence dictated by the 1929 law has no value in the present day," Hidayat Khan, a lawyer, told UPI Next.

"The punishment should be increased to 10 years' jail or a fine of $10,000 (100,000 rupees) or both and should be implemented by force," Khan said.

"If a girl is married without her consent, she may approach the court to challenge the marriage as void," he added, "Islam clearly states that the consent of the man and the woman is necessary for a marriage to be valid."

The handing over of girls as brides to resolve feuds is known as "swara" in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, "vani" in Punjab province, "sang chati" in Sindh province, and "vani" and "lajai" in Baluchistan province. The practice is commonly ordered by informal councils of local male elders known as 'jirgas'. The jirgas do not include or consult women.

The practice was criminalized in 2004 when the Pakistan Penal Code was amended to declare that the person or persons handing over a girl for a swara marriage would be jailed for three to 10 years.

The provincial Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government also outlawed swara in 2011.

Local newspapers reported three cases of child brides being married off to resolve disputes between families in 2012. The girls were ages 5, 6 and 13 in the separate cases in the Swat valley and Baluchistan province.

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