How Pakistan is failing its child brides
Umerkot is famous. Mughal Emperor Akbar was born here in 1542. His parents – dethroned Emperor Humayun and his child-bride Hamida Banu Begum – were then staying here in exile in a 14th century fort.
Umerkot is also famous because of its ruler Umer Soomro who lived a few hundred years ago. One day while visiting the nearby desert of Thar, according to the legend, he saw a teenaged girl, Marui – generally referred to as Marvi – as she was collecting water from a well. Bewitched by her beauty, Soomro took her with him and confined her within his fort to make her marry him. Marui refused. She constantly turned down all of his offers and refused to be tempted by the pleasures of his palace. She instead kept beseeching him to let her go back to her village. After having tried everything, Soomro finally accepted his defeat and sent Marui back to Thar. Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai, one of Sindh’s most well-known Sufi poets, immortalised their tale in his 18th century book, Shah Jo Risalo. He has included Marui amongst his seven queens of Sindh — strong female characters who resisted patriarchy in one way or the other.
Being in Umerkot, in October this year, to collect stories of child-brides, thus, looks both apt and ironic.
The city – about 308 kilometres north-east of Karachi – is bustling with activity on a hot and dry Sunday. Markets are full of shoppers and chaotic traffic is clogging local roads. Everyone seems to be in a hurry. Step out of the city and a rural quiet takes over.
The road leading out of Umerkot to the village of Kharooro Charan is almost deserted. Ameeran, the mother of a three-year-old boy, is sitting on a cot inside a mud house in the village. The house has no boundary wall. Its perimeter is marked by dried thorny, acacia branches. Its large courtyard is dotted with several unattached rooms and a traditional conical Thari hut made of dried plant stalks and reeds. The meagre means of its occupants are in plain sight. As is Ameeran’s weak physique.
Her pale yellow shalwar kameez are making her look devoid of blood. She has a faint smile on her face and does not talk much. As her mother, Fatima, narrates her story, she adds a point or two only occasionally, mostly just nodding in agreement.
Fatima does not remember when exactly Ameeran was born. “[She] was about 12 years of age when we married her off,” she says. “You know how it is in our villages. A girl hitting puberty is deemed fit for marriage.”
Hers was an exchange marriage. She was married to her first cousin, the son of her father’s brother. In return, her uncle’s young daughter, Sanam, was married to Ameeran’s brother.
Within months after her marriage, Ameeran became pregnant. Her parents brought her to their home when the baby was due. “We tried everything at home,” says Fatima as she describes the ordeal that the process of giving birth became for her daughter. “When her labour prolonged, we rushed her to a nearby hospital.” The doctors helped her deliver a baby that was already struggling to breathe. “Ameeran was nearly unconscious.”
She has been unwell since then. For about seven months after giving birth, she was unable to walk properly or do any chores due to chronic pain in her legs and back. Even now she loses her balance sometimes. “She cannot do any work that requires physical effort. She cannot even look after herself,” says Fatima.
Ameeran could also not breastfeed her son, Shakeel, who had to be brought up on goat’s milk. He looks weak and is suffering from severe malnutrition. “His diarrhea does not go away and he does not eat any solid food. His teeth are rotting,” says his grandmother who rears him since his own mother cannot. He does not sleep at night, Fatima adds, counting the ailments afflicting Shakeel who also does not recognise Ameeran as his mother.
Rasheeda Saand, a local health worker and a women’s rights activist, looks at Ameeran and remarks sorrowfully, “Poor girl! [She has] embraced a range of illnesses and disorders and is still longing to hear the word ‘ma’ from her son.”
Ameeran’s husband is a labourer who earns a meagre 200 to 300 rupees per day — that too only on days when he gets work. The money is enough to procure just a daily bowl of rice for the family, she says. Her parents have sold many of their cattle to provide treatment for her and her son. “Doctors say Shakeel’s treatment is possible only in Hyderabad but we have no means to take him there,” says Fatima.
Rasheeda looks sad as she leaves the house. “Doctors here think the child will not survive without treatment in Hyderabad,” she says as soon as she gets out of Fatima’s earshot.
Nirma* belongs to the Oad community, deemed one of the lowest castes in the hierarchical Hindu social structure. She shares a mud house with several members of her family as well as with some goats and buffaloes in Kharoro Syed village of Umerkot district. A slender woman, she appears older than she is in her pink shalwar kameez.
Nirma was married off by her parents about 18 years ago. She was 13 years of age at the time. Her husband was a mere 10 years old. Their marriage was an inter-family exchange: her brother was married to her husband’s sister.
The first four months of her marriage went by like a breeze, she says. And then there was horror. “I was made to work ceaselessly,” she says. Her duties included taking care of the cattle, preparing food for the entire household of her in-laws, keeping the house clean and tidy and washing dirty utensils. “I had not done all these things at my home.”
To add to her woes, Nirma soon became pregnant. It was around that time that her brother hit his wife. Since everything, including torture, has to be reciprocated in exchange marriages, her in-laws urged her husband to hit her too. “That night my in-laws, including my husband, locked me in a room, tied my hands and mercilessly beat me up,” she recalls. This was followed by more beatings and forced labour. Even the smallest mistakes earned her the worst type of physical and psychological abuse. This included sexual assault by her father-in-law, though she mentions it only in passing — and then sobs.
Nirma would often complain to her mother who was too afraid to raise her voice lest it resulted in problems in the second marital relationship bound in the exchange. “She thought I was just lazy and did not want to do [any] chores,” Nirma says of her mother’s response. She spent nearly eight years in the hell that her in-laws’ house became for her. Then her brother died of liver complications caused by his addiction to alcohol and his wife went back to live with her parents.
This gave Nirma an opportunity to run away — she has been living with her parents since 2008. “At first my parents were very scared,” she recalls. Her father-in-law tried to take her back with him several times. He threatened her family and also offered them money. “But I did not go back.” Her husband also joined her later. The two now live together. “I have nothing against him. We were both children when we got married,” she says. Her husband sits close by, listening silently.
Nirma now works as a lady health worker in Umerkot and has five children, including a daughter who is 17 years old. She is determined not to marry her daughters off before they turn 18. “I do not want them to go through the same thing I went through.”
Abdul Karim Mangrio runs a small shop – essentially a hole in the wall of his house – in one of the residential neighbourhoods of Umerkot. He sells packaged snacks, candies and household goods. His grey hair and white beard suggest that he is in his sixties. A former associate of a Sindhi nationalist group, Sindh Taraqi Pasand Party, he now spends his spare time on social activism and is privy to the tragic story of two young girls, Hanifaan and Hawwa. The two were born and raised in the same neighbourhood where he lives. They also belonged to his Mangrio tribe.
Hawwa’s parents, according to him, married her off sometime in 2010 in return for 1.3 million rupees to one Nizam Maher from Ahmedpur Lama area of Punjab’s southernmost district of Rahim Yar Khan. She was about 12 years of age at the time. A few months into her marriage, she complained to her parents about the poor treatment she was receiving from her in-laws but her complaints were not taken seriously. Hawwa then fled from her husband’s house and somehow managed to travel about 530 kilometres by road to get back to her parent’s home in Umerkot.
Hawwa’s in-laws followed her. They asked her parents to send her back with them. Her parents initially refused but agreed after some influential people got involved. She was handed over to the in-laws. “They gave guarantees that they would not harm her in any way,” says Mangrio.
Hawwa was found dead in July 2012.
“Her parents were told that she was accidentally electrocuted. They were given no other details,” he says. They initially tried to have a murder case registered against Maher and his family but went quiet later. Hawwa’s in-laws allegedly paid them 300,000 rupees to “keep their mouths shut”.
Hanifaan, too, died mysteriously. Her parents had married her off into a family from the Maher community in Daharki, a town in northern Sindh, while she was still a child. Her in-laws killed her after accusing her of committing adultery. Mangrio claims they paid 800,000 rupees to her parents so that they do not file a case over her murder.
The practice of selling young girls into marriage with much older men from far-off areas of southern Punjab and upper Sindh is rampant amongst some tribes of southern Sindh, alleges Mangrio. Newspaper clippings collected by him show that the frequency of such marriages in the districts of Umerkot, Tharparkar, Badin and Sanghar is alarmingly high.
Those who ‘purchase’ child-brides treat them as sex slaves and indentured servants. In some instances they are used as sacrificial lambs — as might have happened in Hanifaan’s case. They are first accused of having relationships with men from a tribe or clan that their in-laws have an enmity with. Then the girls and men are both murdered as kari and karo respectively. The parents of the girls are then paid off to keep them silent. “Not all girls who are sold in this manner get killed,” says Mangrio, “but, ultimately, it depends upon their luck.”
Or lack of luck.
Mangrio says he has spent years providing information to the police about the selling of child-brides. He also claims to have successfully prevented many deals. “People are wary of the police now.” But they have found ways to avoid getting caught. “They go to other districts to sell their daughters into child marriages.”
The village of Wasu is about 32 kilometres south-west of Jhang city. Brick kiln worker Zafar Iqbal, his wife Haleema and two sons live here in a house off the road that links the village to its nearby town of Athara Hazari. About six months ago, Iqbal’s eldest son, Javed, eloped with a girl from a Baloch family living in Jhang city. The two later got married. Iqbal says he had no idea about their whereabouts.
The girl’s father, Aijaz Khan, approached Sarfraz Sanpaal, who is married to Javed’s sister, Rubina, for help in tracing the couple. They found them living in Faisalabad city but, their marriage being legal, nothing could be done to separate them. Aijaz then demanded that Sanpaal give his own daughter – eight-year-old Nuzhat – in an exchange marriage to his brother Ameer Khan so that the conflict between the two families could end. On September 18, 2017, Nuzhat was married to Ameer.
Sanpaal and the local police differ on how exactly the marriage took place. In an application that he submitted to the police on October 16, 2017 Sanpaal stated that his daughter was abducted and her marriage was solemnised under coercion from Aijaz and his men. He also alleged that Aijaz had kept him and his wife Rubina hostage in a village along the Jhang-Sargodha highway after the abduction of Nuzhat. He claims to have escaped from captivity 20 days later, though Rubina still remains detained by Aijaz Khan.
The police, on the other hand, filed a report a day later, accusing Sanpaal of being complicit in the illegal marriage of his minor daughter. He is now in jail. The case is being heard by a court in Jhang that ordered that Nuzhat be recovered from her abductors and handed over to her grandfather, Iqbal.
Nuzhat rests in the arms of her grandmother as Iqbal gives the details of her ordeal. Her earlobes have marks of healing wounds that, she says, resulted from beatings she received regularly during her abduction. She also says she was made to do chores throughout the day and was given food only once in 24 hours. She does not remember what happened to her during the nights other than that she was given something to drink before she went to bed. According to her medical examination report, she was subjected to sexual torture during sleep.
Akram*, 27, is a resident of Ahmedpur Sial, a tehsil town in the southern part of Jhang district. He runs a private school in his home town and occasionally contributes to local websites and news channels as a freelance reporter. Clad in black pants, a red T-shirt and a jacket, he looks confident and relaxed.
Akram was only five years old when his parents married him off. It was an exchange marriage: his bride – who was only a few months old at the time – belonged to the family of his elder sister’s in-laws. She was to stay with her parents until their wedding took place. Such marriages, he says, are common in his community.
While Akram was in high school, he realised that his would-be spouse was receiving no education. He was also getting uncomfortable with the idea of consummating a marriage in which he did not have any say. He, therefore, refused to continue the relationship. At first his refusal was not taken seriously. He was told that dissolving his marriage was impossible because it would result in divorce for his sister — as is usual in exchange marriages. In 2014, after he had done his masters in mass communication from the University of Sargodha, his family told him to get ready for his wedding. He refused.
His family tried to convince him by talking to him. They also pressurised him emotionally. Then his in-laws threatened him of dire consequences. He recalls how they blocked the drainage of waste water from his house, inundating the rooms inside. His mother was often upbraided publicly.
Distressed, Akram left his home for Islamabad where he joined Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s protest sit-in. He stayed there for many months — as long as the sit-in continued. That did not lessen his family’s troubles. They were facing a social boycott and his sister was routinely ridiculed by her in-laws. He still persisted with his refusal. He was then told to divorce his bride. He obliged. Thankfully for his sister, she was spared the retaliatory divorce because her in-laws understood that Baloch had not divorced their daughter out of personal spite but due to his world view.
He does not regret his decision and happily reports that it has made his community wary of continuing the tradition of child marriages. “Parents are now afraid of marrying off their children at an early age, fearing that they will grow up to reject those marriages,” he says.
Akhtar Colony, a slum next to Karachi’s Defence Housing Authority area, is home to a large population of Roman Catholics. Well past sunset on a recent day, inadequate lighting makes it difficult to identify houses by their numbers inside unkempt streets. Asking for directions runs the risk of exposing local contacts to attention they want to avoid.
Jane* and her husband are waiting on a street to make it easier to spot their home, which is otherwise hard to distinguish from other houses in the neighbourhood. They quickly whisk me inside their home so that nobody can know that a journalist is visiting them. They have been undergoing acute mental stress since September 2016 when Jane’s daughter, Julie*, a matric student, went missing. They do not want their neighbours to embarrass them by discussing the circumstances of her disappearance again.
The lack of means evident inside the house is disconcerting as Jane recalls how Julie went to a nearby school last year but never came back. “Next day we received a call from one of our Christian neighbours who claimed his brother and our daughter had both converted to Islam and contracted a marriage out of their free will,” she says and pauses to control her sobs. “My daughter was only 15 years old at that time,” she resumes.
Jane and her husband went to the local police station to lodge a case, stating that Julie had not yet reached the legal age to get married; hence her marriage was illegal. The police instead registered a case of kidnapping. Julie’s husband Michael* moved the Sindh High Court against the case. The court quashed the case registered by Julie’s parents and allowed her to live with Michael.
The judges did not take into account the fact that Julie’s marriage violated the Sindh Child Marriages Restraint Act 2013, which does not empower a child to marry of her own will, says Jane. They also did not deem it as a contentious issue that Julie did not have a Computerised National Identity Card (CNIC) because of being less than 18 years of age, she adds.
If the police and the court had looked into the legality of the marriage, the outcome of the case could have been different, says Jane’s lawyer. Julie would have been living with her parents rather than with her husband who could have been in jail, he adds without wanting to be quoted by name. He is now fighting the case at the Supreme Court.
In a kidnapping case, however, the judges want the kidnapped person produced in front of them to ask him or her if he or she was taken away forcibly. “If the person says no, the court orders the quashing of the case,” the lawyer explains. A negative answer is generally obtained through pressure, especially when the concerned person is a child, he says.
Problems involving marriages resulting from religious conversions were, ironically, a major factor why the Sindh Child Marriages Restraint Act 2013 was legislated in the first place. After most of the Hindu girls being converted to Islam in the province for marriage with Muslim men were found to be in their early to middle teens, the law put the legal marriageable age at 18.
It is pilgrimage time in Nankana Sahib in early November. Thousands of Sikhs have descended on this central Punjab town to celebrate the birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, the founder of their religion. So has smog.
A road is hardly visible through a smoggy afternoon as it leaves the town and runs about 15 kilometres westwards to a village, Chak Wattoan 638/GB. A widow named Sabira Bibi lives in this settlement by the side of a canal. Her daughter died recently in a complicated pregnancy.
Sabira’s humble home comprises of two rooms and a small courtyard. She is rearing a family of 10 people on the meagre pension of her deceased husband who retired as a non-commissioned officer from the army. “As soon as a girl starts making perfect rotis and can handle household chores, she is deemed fit to be married,” says Sabira. If some parents cannot arrange an early marriage for their daughters, the entire community around them pressurises them into doing so urgently, she says. “It is very hard to resist the societal pressure.” People fear girls will fall for wrong men and may run away if they are not married off at an early age, Sabira says.
A lawyer at a law chamber in Nankana Sahib echoes these views. “These mobile phones have exacerbated the problem,” he says. One of the reasons behind underage marriages, according to him, is increased connectivity between girls and boys. “Every other day, we find a minor girl in our chamber who has run away from her home with a man somewhat older than her. We are then requested by them to facilitate their marriage.”
Sabira married off her daughter Maimoona Shahzadi when she was 17 years of age. Maimoona was one year older than the legally marriageable age set in Punjab, but she was still too young to bear children as is evident by what happened to her eventually. Within the next four years, she gave birth to a child and had a miscarriage. Her body could not cope with these labours and she died while she was five months into her second, and unsuccessful, pregnancy. Sabira concedes that marriage before a suitable age could be the reason for her daughter’s death. “But we did not know it beforehand.” She says she will try her best to postpone the marriage of her other daughter – who has turned 16 recently – until she can fully take care of herself.
It is for the same medical reasons that Rasheeda Saand, the health worker in Umerkot, has been trying to discourage people in her area from marrying their daughters off at an early age. Women, according to her, sometimes understand the risks but men do not and they are the ones who always make decisions. What results from their decisions is nothing less than a human tragedy — as Maimoona’s death suggests.
Lubna Ikhlaq, a gynaecologist at a public sector hospital in Layyah, explains that an early marriage can have far-reaching medical effects on a minor girl. Since the girl is not fully grown and her pelvic bones are not fully developed, it is more likely that she will require a cesarean surgery to deliver the baby, the doctor says. “[A child mother] may also develop eclampsia, which results in high blood pressure and a swollen body.”
Karachi-based gynaecologist Dr Shershah Syed, who has also served as general secretary of the Pakistan Medical Association, states that underage marriages are a major reason why young girls develop obstetric fistula. “This condition is most common in underage, malnourished and physically weak girls and it develops when they undergo longer than normal labour pains, he explains. The prolonged pressure on their pelvic bones causes their skin tissues to die, creating holes between either their rectums and vaginas or their bladders and vaginas, resulting in the perpetual and abnormal leakage of stool and urine, he says.
Birth-related complications sometimes also lead to death. According to the Family Planning Association of Pakistan, one Pakistani woman dies during childbirth every 20 minutes. Our country’s maternal mortality ratio – 276 per 100,000 pregnant women – is among the highest in the world. And a major reason for this, according to family planning experts, is underage marriages.
Rani Bibi, a 13-year-old girl, lives in Budhla Sant union council adjoining Multan city. On a cold November day, she is sitting in the courtyard of her mud house. “By the grace of Almighty Allah, I turned out to be lucky,” she says, looking at the sky. As she was being married to her 25-year-old maternal cousin Nadeem Ahmed in August this year, a local human rights activist heard about it and informed the police. The marriage was stopped. “All of my family was worried but I was relieved and thanked Allah who had saved me from an unwanted marriage,” she says.
Incidents like these are quite common across the poverty-ridden and tradition-bound southern and south-western parts of Punjab. There have been 16 reported cases of child marriages in just eight districts of this region between January and October 2017. For each of these cases, many more have gone unreported.
In some of these cases, the discrepancy between the ages of the bride and the bridegroom had been alarming. A 14-year-old girl, Salma Bibi, was married to a 76-year-old man in Dera Ghazi Khan. Similarly, a five-year-old child was married to an elderly man in Muzaffargarh district.
In other cases, the pervasive tradition of exchange marriages was to be blamed for young girls being married off to men from among the in-laws of their brothers and uncles. There are also reported instances of minor girls being given into marriage to settle disputes — as was the case with 13-year-old Shaheen Bibi, a resident of Basti Darkhan in Karor tehsil of Layyah district. She was married to Muhammad Arshad, 17, by the order of an informal local jury because her elder brother, Muhammad Usman, had eloped with Arshad’s sister Ruqayya Bibi. The jury ordered Shaheen Bibi’s father to agree to the exchange marriage or leave the village within 48 hours.
Sindh Assembly adopted a bill in November 2016 that made it unlawful to change one’s religion before attaining the age of 18. The bill was aimed at preventing the conversion of minor Hindu girls to Islam for their marriages to Muslim men. Many Muslim religious parties erupted immediately in protest, calling the bill un-Islamic and forcing the provincial government to delay its passage into law books and official rules and regulations.
In theory, this delay should still be no hindrance in stopping Hindu girls below the age of 18 from marrying Muslim men since a law exists to stop the marriage of anyone who has not yet reached that age. In a landmark case in January 2015, the Sindh High Court showed how. It did not allow Anjali Meghwar, renamed as Salma after her conversion to Islam, to go with her husband even after she had told the judges that she had converted to Islam and contracted the marriage by her own choice. The court based its decision on the findings of a medical board it had specially set up that declared her age to be 14 to 15 years. But since she had refused to go with her parents and she could not go with her husband because of her marriage being illegal under the Sindh Child Marriages Restraint Act 2013, the court had no choice but to send her to a shelter. Why the same high court gave a different verdict in Julie’s case – as reported earlier – is anyone’s guess.
Faizullah Korejo, a senior superintendent of police in Karachi’s South Zone, says that selective and flawed implementation of the law against child marriages is partly rooted in a hazily defined role for the police. This confusion stops police officers from intervening to prevent a child marriage on their own, he says. They will not act unless there is a private complaint, he adds. The law also does not annul a marriage contracted in violation of its provisions, says Korejo who has also worked as a child rights trainer with many non-governmental organisations. “The act is completely silent about it … if a marriage has been solemnised, nothing can [undo it].”
The other problem with laws prohibiting child marriages is that they vary across Pakistan. The first such law, the Child Marriage Restraint Act 1929, was introduced by the British colonial administration. It fixed the marriageable age for girls at 14 years. For boys, it set the marriageable age at 18. The Muslim Family Laws Ordinance 1961 revised the marriageable age for girls upwards — to 16 years. The latter law continued to be in force until the 18th amendment was passed by the federal government in 2010, making the prevention of child marriages a provincial subject.
Sindh was the first province to have a law against child marriages. The legislation, passed in 2013, made child marriage a cognisable offence, empowering the police to arrest those involved in it. The act also deemed child marriage a non-compoundable offence, barring the families involved to strike an out-of-court settlement.
Punjab passed its own law in 2015, retaining the age limits set by the 1961 ordinance. It empowers the police to stop a child marriage and register a case but does not give law enforcement agencies the power to make arrests on their own. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, in the meanwhile, continue to be governed by the 1929 act that does not allow the police to even take note and register a case. None of these laws provide for the dissolution of a child marriage.
There have been a few attempts lately to have a uniform marriageable age for girls across Pakistan. Sehar Kamran, a Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) senator, recently introduced a bill for the same purpose but her initiative was turned down by the Senate’s Standing Committee on Interior, which rejected her bill by a majority vote. The committee’s head, Senator Rehman Malik, who also represents the PPP, stated that the legislation proposed by Sehar “was contrary to Islamic injunctions”.
If legislators cannot agree on the age limit that differentiates a child from an adult due to religious reasons, then it is easy to imagine why they would hesitate to declare an illegally contracted marriage as null and void since that also means entering the realm of religious edicts. Sehar, too, believes that the issue of marriageable age needs to be resolved first before we move on to addressing other problems associated with child marriages. “Underage marriages are a violation of basic human rights as they snatch childhood from innocent children and this question should be tackled as such,” she says over the phone. If you can’t drive, are ineligible to vote and contest in elections and are barred from entering into contracts before you turn 18, how can you then be allowed to get married before that age, considering how huge a social obligation a marriage is, she argued.
There have been many other suggestions to change the existing laws to make them more effective or at least to ensure effective implementation. People such as Nuzhat Yasmeen, a high court lawyer based in Layyah, Anees Jillani, a Supreme Court lawyer and founder of the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child and Rana Asif Habib, a senior lawyer and human rights activist in Karachi, suggest that producing the CNIC or any other official proof of the girl’s age must be made mandatory to ensure that a marriage is being solemnised in strict accordance with the law. CNICs are not produced even in marriages registered in courts. “This can be stopped only when the judicial staff knows the laws and their implications deeply,” says Habib.
Zia Ahmed Awan, a Supreme Court lawyer and a human rights activist working in Karachi, calls child marriages “community-sanctioned violence”. These marriages cannot be curbed through legislation alone, he says, but require coordinated efforts from the government, the civil society and the media. All of them should work in tandem to sensitise doctors, lawyers, teachers and other members of the society about the negative effects of child marriages, he argues.
Awan also emphasises the need for digitising all marriage records. “There is no database of marriages. You cannot know whether a person, male or female, intending to enter into a marriage is already married, has children or is divorced or widowed,” he says. We must have a database maintained by the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA), he suggests. “[This] may help bring an end to child marriages.”
*Names have been changed to protect identities.
Additional reporting by Faridullah Chaudhry
This article was published in the Herald's December 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.