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Just in their teens and stopping child marriages

By: Tehmina Qureshi

Karachi: For the past year, a group of 90 girls and 10 teachers from government schools in Jam Khanda of rural Malir have been campaigning against child marriages.

When they hear about a girl from their school who is about to be tied in wedlock, they go to her house and try to explain to her parents the implications of putting too much responsibility on a young girl who is still growing, both mentally and physically.

Sometimes, after days of arguments, they are able to sway the families, mostly belonging to conservative Baloch and Pashtun communities who even refuse polio vaccination. Other times, they are rebuked and sent back.

One of the campaigners is 16-year-old Sabr-un-Nissa, a class-X student at the Government Girls High School, Malir.

Last year, when she was in class IX, she tried to stop her friend’s family from marrying her off.

Hailing from a Pashtun family herself, Sabr-un-Nissa is deeply familiar with the effects of early marriage.

Her mother, who had been married when she was an adolescent, had recently passed away after giving birth to two stillborns. “I explained to them that bearing children is not easy and told them about my mother,” she said. “Once they understood that Sadia [her friend] needed to grow up first to ensure her and her family’s well-being, they decided to wait till she was 18 years old and let her study.”

Another campaigner is Ayesha who studies at a low-cost fellowship school in Gadap town. She had resisted when her family tried to marry her off to a man twice her age.

“I had a proposal from a man who was 35 years old and wanted to get married within three months. But I wanted to study,” she said. “I tried talking to my parents but when they didn’t listen I asked my teacher Ms Zohra to come to my rescue. She came to my house and explained to my mother that marrying me off early would not ensure my well-being. She told her studying will allow me to make better choices for myself and my family. Eventually my mother was convinced and she talked my father out of it.”

Vicious cycle

Child marriages limit or put an end to the choices available to young girls about their own bodies, let alone receiving education, said Dr Yasmin Qazi, a former public health expert.

“Young girls who are married off are seldom in a position to make choices about their health. Besides pressure from the families, they also lack education and end up making bad choices for their and their babies’ health, resulting in the alarming figures of maternal and infant mortality we see in Pakistan,” she said. “Bearing a child robs the girls’ bodies of the nutrients they need to grow. In addition to that, insufficient child spacing results in poor health of the babies born.”

In Pakistan, according to the State of World’s Children report released by Unicef, 11 percent of girls are married before they are 15 while 24 percent are married before they reach the age of 18, putting their health and education in jeopardy.

The figures also reveal that Pakistan girls currently aged between 20 and 24 years gave birth before they turned 18 and one-third of all under-five children in the country were under-weight.

Around 86 babies of every 1,000 babies born die every year and the infant mortality rate is 8.6 percent, one of the highest in the world.

Leading the change

These young girls reach out to their own families and neighbours, before moving on to elders and other stakeholders of their own community to explain to them the risks which young girls were exposed to – ranging from domestic violence and access to health and education facilities – if they are married early.

In 2014, Sindh became the first province in the country to have introduced a law to criminalise marriage before the age of 18. But the implementation of the law leaves much to be desired.

This is where the young campaigners come in. During the past year, each of the 90 young schoolgirls has already reached 100 homes in their communities.

But before they were allowed to venture out on their own, they were educated on the issue by an international organisation, Rutgers-WPF.

“We trained 210 girls in the rural areas of Karachi, including Bin Qasim, Malir and Gadap towns while 250 are working in Sanghar district,” said Rutgers-WPF country chief Qadeer Baig.

He said projects by welfare organisations are frequent but they seldom make a lasting impact in the society. “This is why we thought of engaging the very section of society most affected by early marriages. The phenomenon kicks off the cycle of lack of education and subsequent poor health resulting from poor and limited choices,” he added. “We engaged girls studying in government schools in Sanghar and Malir districts and educated them about the risks of early marriage. Not only that, we had to work with them and train them to give them confidence to speak out and assume the role of young leaders in their areas.”

He said for ensuring the implementation of the child marriage restraint law, it was imperative not to offend people but engage them to change their attitudes from within. To help the young girls, teachers from their schools were also given the same training.

Justice Shaiq Usmani said a marriage was a contract between two adults who consented to its emotional, physical and social implications.

He suggested adding a provision in the law which made it mandatory for a qazi to report every month the number of nikahs he had performed and how old the brides.

He also recommended setting up a watchdog body in every district of the province comprising retired judges, journalists and parliamentarians, to bring the cases of early marriages to the notice of the local magistrate.

Provincial women development and social welfare minister Rubina Qaimkhani said the civil society had a lot more resources than the government. She added that it was also the civil society which had lobbied for the passage of the child marriage restraint law and kept the government departments working in the right direction. “The government does not have the resources to train people on the grass-roots level so it is encouraging to see the civil society taking up the task.”

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