Monday, March 09, 2009

Women's Issues: Pakistan - Child marriages make a mockery of laws and UN coventions

By Zofeen Ebrahim - IPS
Republished permission Inter Press Service (IPS )copyright Inter Press Service (IPS) and

IPS - All of seven, Perween sat on a string cot in her bridal finery, awaiting the big moment. She looked a little confused and peered from under her big, red shawl to see what the fuss was all about.

To Perween, things were not too different from the marriages she would arrange for her dolls. And then the henna patterns drawn on her tiny palms for the occasion and the red glass bangles on her arms looked pretty.

In her remote village, in the Sanghar district of Sindh province, no one seemed even remotely aware that the marriage, conducted on Nov. 23, 2008, was illegal.

Rubina, 25, had watched the proceedings silently, knowing only too well what was in store for the unsuspecting Perween. Rubina was herself married off, at the age of 10, to a 45-year-old man - then already married and father of five children.

"Far from asking me if I was ready for marriage, I wasn’t even told I was being married off to someone old enough to be my father," said Rubina.

Uneducated, immature and physically weak, with her body not even fully developed, Rubina said she had no idea that the relationship involved intergenerational sex. "We don’t talk about sex with our daughters. It’s not considered right," she said shyly.

Neither Rubina’s parents nor anyone in the village seemed aware that child marriage is an offence. Child or early marriage refers to any marriage of a child younger than 18 years old, according to Article 1 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Pakistan signed in 1990.

The U.N. Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), to which Pakistan acceded in 1996, mentions the right to protection from child marriage in Article 16. It states: "The betrothal and the marriage of a child shall have no legal effect, and all necessary action, including legislation, shall be taken…"

In addition, Pakistan’s Muslim Family Law states that, in a marriage, a girl must be at least 16 (age of puberty) and must give her consent. There is a Child Marriage Restraint Act, dating back to 1929, which has never been implemented and remains in the statute books.

In March 2004, the Law and Justice Commission came out with a draft amendment to the Pakistan Penal Code seeking to penalise the act of offering or accepting a woman against her free will, or any child in marriage by way of compensation. That amendment was never passed and estimates say that 30 percent of all marriages fall into the category of child marriage.

Often the child bride is forced into sexual activity with her husband when she is not physically and sexually mature. "This can have severe health consequences," said Shershah Syed, a gynecologist and leading rights activist.

"My husband forced himself upon me that night and every night after that," Rubina narrated, her eyes clouding. "I was so ashamed I couldn’t tell anybody, but I remember, by night time, I’d be so scared, I’d get fever."

Syed says what is happening is nothing short of "child sexual abuse".

"I see such cases every day in the hospital and this is a custom not peculiar to remote and conservative villages alone, but prevalent in a cosmopolitan and modern city like Karachi."

Syed says parents often bring in their young girls, "some as young as 11 or 12 with vaginal tear" after being initiated into sex. "I know these girls are newly married by the mehndi [henna] on their hands," said Syed.

In most cases, early pregnancy follows early marriage, said Syed. "For a young mother, the risks associated with pregnancy become four-fold,’’ he said. These include heavy bleeding, fistula, anaemia and eclampsia.

There is evidence that obstetric fistula can also be caused by early intercourse associated with child marriage, and there is a strong co-relation between a mother’s age and maternal mortality. According to Dr. Feryal Fikree, a Pakistani researcher with the Population Reference Bureau, child marriage is a gross violation of women’s rights. "The girls’ social development is compromised," said Fikree.

Fikree said girls married off early are less likely to complete their education and often suffer from poor health because they are burdened with heavy domestic chores and the pressure to reproduce.

Perween, like Rubina, was never asked if she wanted to marry. Her father saw no need for that.

And then hers was an ‘exchange marriage’. Her elder brother, Riaz Hussain, was in love with Bushra, sister of Zahid Ali, and the only way to get her hand in marriage was to give away his seven-year-old sister in exchange to the 40-year-old widower Ali.

When the media got wind of this child marriage it was highlighted on local TV channels and reported in Sindhi language newspapers. The government remained indifferent and took no action.

Ali, like Rubina’s husband, has two children from his previous marriage.

In many parts of Pakistan, in keeping with medieval customs and in complete negation of the principles of Islam that has accorded women many basic rights, men in many parts of this country still consider women as property.

A father may literally ‘sell’ off a daughter to pay off loans from the bride money he receives from the son-in-law. Often, family feuds are settled by giving away daughters or sisters (some as young as a few months old) to the enemy camp, in a custom called ‘swara’ or ‘vani’.

Three years ago, in a village in Shikarpur, in Sindh, a tribal jirga (council), ordered a father, Mohammad Ramzan, to hand over two daughters - aged nine and one - as compensation for the three buffaloes he had acquired. Luckily for the girls, the Sindh High Court intervened and barred the transaction.

According to a report ‘Situation of Violence Against Women in Pakistan,’ launched in February by the Aurat Foundation, a prominent women’s rights group, 25 incidents of vani were reported in the media in 2008. However, experts say these statistics are just the tip of the iceberg as the majority of cases go unreported.
Published by Mike Hitchen, Mike Hitchen Consulting
Putting principles before profits