By Zofeen T Ebrahim
KARACHI: A small revolution is brewing in some 30 villages in Dadu district’s Johi taluka in Sindh. A group of people, mostly men, are trying to end the age-old practice of child marriage.
“Child marriage is a norm here,” said Mashooque Birhamani, who heads Sujag Sansar Organization (SSO) – an NGO that is aimed at preventing child marriage. Since 2010, SSO has been able to preempt and stop 30 such marriages in these villages.
According to the latest Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey (2012-13), 8% of women between the age of 15 and 19 years in Pakistan are already mothers or pregnant with their first child. However, teenage fertility has halved since 1990-91.
After the passage of the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act 2013, the legal age for marriage in Sindh was raised to 18. Those who break the law face imprisonment which may extend to three years and a fine.
The SSO is training nikahkhwans like Maulvi Mohammad Amin to visit villages in the district and raise awareness about the hazards of early marriage.
When parents come to him for the nikah service, he asks for the CNIC of the bride and groom and if that is not available, he asks for their age.
If he is not satisfied, he refuses. “People listen to him,” said Birhamani.
“We know that the more education a girl has, the later she is likely to marry and the more likely she will be able to generate a safe and regular income,” said Executive Director of Girls not Brides Lakshmi Sundaram.
The effort of SSO is finally bearing fruit. Only recently, Birhamani was able to arrange a bus to transport over 33 girls from Allah Bachayo village to the city some 21 km from it so that they could sit for their matriculation exam.
“This was a village where just five years back, girls dropped out of 5th class when they reached puberty.
While they have been receiving countless marriage proposals, the girls have resisted pressure and are now studying in Class 10.
Parents, too, are slowly learning through their children that there are dangers of marrying young.
In some parts of Pakistan, the age of the child is often unknown and is often measured in other ways.
If a girl is able to pick up an earthenware pitcher filled with water and carry it on her head, she is ripe for marriage. Another is that after she hits puberty, it is wrong for her to live in her parents’ house.
These girls have learnt important lessons – that they have the right to education, that the legal age of marriage is 18, that till then a woman’s body is not ready to bear babies, that consent of the girl in marriage is mandatory and that learning a skill can make them eco:nomically empowered and as strong as their brothers.
The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are set to come to an end in 2015. However, scant attention has been paid to the needs of girls and child marriage in the MDGs.
Sundaram said child marriage was a barrier to many of the world’s most challenging development issues and had hindered efforts to achieve six of the eight MDGs.
Goal three, which promotes “gender equality and empower women”, makes no mention of child marriage.
But as the MDGs end, replaced by a new set of goals – Sustainable Development Goals – to transform the world by 2030, activists like Sundaram insist the importance of including the issue of child marriage into SDGs.
According to Girls Not Brides, this practice traps 15 million girls each year into a cycle of poverty, ill health and inequality.