* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
By Hadia Nusrat, Senior Gender Advisor, CARE Pakistan
Driving through parts of Sindh is impossible, as so much of the area is underwater from new floods this year, with roads either inaccessible or crowded with families who have lost their homes. Sadly, in the far flung communities and villages of Dadu, people have lived in abject poverty for generations. Young women are particularly vulnerable. The scenery is reminiscent of last year, in the wake of the floods where we found a young girl called Kanwal, who lives in a remote village in Dodo Birhamani.
Displaced by the floods, Kanwal and her family of eleven members migrated to this village as they had relatives here, seeking shelter until they were able to build their own. But with no income and many mouths to feed, Kanwal’s parents decided to raise funds by arranging a marriage for Kanwal, who was just nine years old at the time. Traditionally marriages take place early in the Birhamani tribe. Girls are usually married by age 15 -- any later and they would be stigmatized as being too old to be married. In Kanwal’s case her parents would receive a sum of 70,000 Rupees (USD 800) as bride price that would allow them to buy a lot of land and some goats to resettle in this village.
A stony rescue
Kanwal was hauled away from a game of marbles she was playing with her friends by her mother, and informed that she needed to get ready for her wedding. She protested about the disruption of her game, only beginning to realize that this decision would change her life forever -- in ways she still cannot fully understand. When she resisted, her mother threatened to jump in the well and commit suicide. Her sister, who was also a young girl married at age eleven and is now the mother of two young boys, begged her not to refuse. The family’s honor would be at stake. Her father would be humiliated in front of the other tribesmen. She cajoled her with promises that she would visit her often, and that she would get new clothes to wear as a bride.
Confused, scared and unwilling, Kanwal reluctantly agreed. The wedding date was set for the very next day. As the ceremony was proceeding, a police van and police officers (including a female officer) intercepted the wedding procession, took Kanwal into protective custody, and moved her to the nearby Dadu city.
It turned out to be Kanwal’s special day after all. Someone from the village had called the police to report that the crime of marrying a nine year old was taking place. Normally such events go un-reported in Pakistan, but in Dadu an CARE project* funded by the European Union for protecting human rights had recently run street theatres, and shared contacts with village youth in case they wished to report crimes in the area. This small initiative had sparked an essential change in raising awareness, empowering local people with information and networks for reporting a crime in progress and intercepting it.
The rescue did not run smoothly. The police squad was stoned and their car was smashed. Kanwal’s mother, who accompanied her young daughter to the police station, protested profusely. But when she learned that she, her husband and the groom’s family could all be libel to fines, penalties and possible jail, she quieted, appreciating for perhaps the first time that marrying a girl so young was indeed a crime -- and seeing now how that they had been pushed in to it. At the time of the marriage agreement and exchange of bride price, Kanwal’s mother explained, it was agreed that Kanwal would be wed only after puberty. But once the money was paid, the groom’s family insisted she be wed quickly.
The stigma of shame
Now the family faces a greater challenge. Even though their young daughter has been spared the fate of being a young laborer in the guise of being a bride, she faces the stigma of shame that her marriage was stopped. Now her family is under pressure from the tribal elders’ council decision that her family should return the cash or relinquish the land they bought in favor of the groom’s family. The groom’s family has used political connections to evade prosecution for any crime. On the contrary, they have had Kanwal’s father jailed for false allegations of theft, creating greater heartache and problems for her family --who now blame her for the cycle of problems affecting them.
Kanwal is an energetic girl, who cooks the food for her family of eleven. Two of her siblings are mentally disabled, while the others are all young men and boys who leave the home to seek daily wage work. Often they return empty handed, as there is little work in the parched lands around the village. There is just one school in the village run by a local non-governmental organization and their charges make the education unaffordable for Kanwal’s family. Kanwal knows there is an alternative – a young woman who is ready to teach her and other girls to read and write for much less -- and with her audience of visitors, she even dares to argue with her mother that she should be allowed to learn. Her mother is not interested in education. She needs her daughter’s help in the house. Kanwal, however, remembers fondly and proudly the year she went to school in the village they used to live in before the floods. She can write the entire English and Sindhi alphabet, and can write her name in both languages. She holds up pages of her writing with the same enthusiasm she shows for her hand-stitched textile designs.
Though she has been saved from becoming a child bride, her human rights may still not be respected. Her rights to education, justice, access to information, decent living and livelihood may all still be denied, without schools, teachers, income generation opportunities, honest judiciary or law enforcement bodies that can carry the work forward. This is an unfinished story. Kanwal faces a perilous journey, as do many young girls in this region. With each new flood, they are at risk of quietly being sold for brides, as the only source of financial security for their families.
CARE has been working in Sindh since 2007, initially responding to floods, then with a Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights program, and staying on to support these communities devastated by the 2010 and 2011 floods. CARE’s priority is to work with marginalized women, providing primary health services and raising awareness on health and hygiene practices to help women help themselves.