By Zofeen T. Ebrahim, Womens Feature Service
Had it not been for the timely action of Liaquat Kanrani, a police officer in village Garhi Hassan Sarki, in Jacobabad, 403 kilometres from the port city of Karachi, on March 20, seven-year-old Sabira Sarki, would have been married off to 35-year-old Rahimdad Banglani.
Sarki’s mother told reporters that they had sold their daughter to Banglani for Pakistani Rs 80,000 (US$1=PKR 80.2) to pay for her husband’s illness. The police arrested the groom and the bride’s father, while the cleric and the groom’s father have fled. Banglani vowed to marry Sarki because he had already paid the price.
A similar wedlock took place some 10 years ago, except there was no police intervention. Shahzadi was sold off to her husband, a 40-year-old widower, when she was not even 11. “Working as a housemaid from the age of nine, I thought life after marriage would be better as I’d be rid of my alcoholic father,” said Shahzadi, now 21.
She couldn’t have been more mistaken. Since marriage, her life has been one long struggle. Unlettered Sahibzadi belongs to a remote village in Sanghar district, 300 kilomteres from Karachi, in Sindh. She says her husband paid off her father’s loan in exchange for her hand.
It is hard to estimate the exact number of child marriages in the country, as many nuptials solemnised are unofficial. However, under the Pakistani Penal Code, such marriages are illegal.
Sahibzadi has no idea that both her father and her husband have committed an offence. But then that was almost a decade ago and this must be a dying custom, or so one would’ve thought.
Sadly that is not the case.
Dr Azra Ahsan, a leading obstetrician and gynecologist in Karachi, often has young girls having had “vaginal tear” after intercourse coming to her clinic. She says young pregnant girls in their early teens often have no clue about what marriage entails. “Far from the knowledge about contraception or family planning, they are not even prepared for their debut into sex.”
Ahsan adds, “She (a child bride) is more at risk of pregnancy-related complications than an older woman,” says Ahsan. “Her body is not fully developed, neither are her bones. The risk of her developing fistula, as a result of prolonged and obstructed labour is far higher.”
Most countries have declared minimum age of marriage to be 18. The Muslim Family Law states the age of marriage of a girl to be 16. Condemning this practice of pre-puberty marriage, a researcher and advocate for safe motherhood, with the Population Reference Bureau, Fariyal Fikree, says, “It’s even worse than marital rape. The sexual rights of [the] girl-child are grossly violated.”
While there are laws in Pakistan that prohibit child marriage like the Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929, that “prohibits marriage of minors and prescribes punishments for anyone, including a parent or guardian, for conducting a child marriage” these are violated with impunity. Nobody frowns upon or even stops such cruel transgressions.
Pakistan has ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) whose Article 16 states that, “The betrothal and the marriage of a child shall have no legal effect…”
“Whether it’s the rural conservative society, or urban educated class, discrimination against women exists and persists. Women are considered as commodity,” says Samar Minallah, heading Islamabad-based Ethnomedia and Development, a non-governmental organisation.
As a result, adds Minallah, pervasive practices where women are exchanged to settle family feuds, settle debts, or just to exchange brides, carry on.
And what if there are no daughters or sisters to give away?
They buy the woman. In April 2006, Afsar Ali bought 13-year-old Bibi Jan from a marketplace in Peshawar, capital of the frontier province, for PKR 53,000 to settle a family dispute because he did not have a close female relative to give away. Bibi Jan was lucky, some say, for the recipient family rejected her, claiming that she was mentally challenged.
In addition, says Minallah, “These cultural customs enjoy the patronage of those sitting in the parliament, who only reinforce these customs.” According to her, “no amount of laws in the statute books would make a difference to end medieval practices as culture dominates state laws.”
Standing in the mustard field, the sun almost blinding her, Sahibzadi picked up the three-year old daughter who was crying for her attention, and swung her on one hip. “I get up early to do the housework, then off I go to work in the fields. If I don’t, we can’t eat,” she says matter of fact, having come to terms with destiny.
“I come back home, finish off the rest of the chores till sunset. In the night I am available for my addict husband. He is so stoned he does not even know if I’m tired or unwell, or even that I’m not in the mood. I just perform mechanically,” she narrates how every day begins and ends.
In another village, Sanghar, Nazeer Begum, 54, narrates her tale. She was married off at the age of 13, immediately after her first menstruation cycle. She was married to a man 15 years her senior. “My parents believed that to marry off daughters just at the onset of puberty was equivalent to performing Haj (pilgrimage to Mecca).”
For the first year of her marriage she had to bear the taunts of her mother-in-law for not conceiving. In addition, she said, “Being the youngest meant I was expected to do a lot of household chores, including sweeping the house and cooking for 14 family members.”
Dr Ahsan says a young girl married early may face serious health risks. The immediate causes of maternal death include hemorrhage (bleeding), hypertension (eclampsia), infection, obstructed labour and complications of unsafe abortion.
According to UNICEF, the social consequences include dropping out of school and premature pregnancies, which can lead to higher maternal and infant mortality. The UN agency also points out that abuse is common in child marriages.
Fortunately, in Nazeer Begum’s home, history won’t repeat itself. Though all four of her children are married, she ensured that all of them completed their studies. What is more, Begum passed her Grade 10 board examination in 2006, with the help of her younger daughter.