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SOCIETY: THE COUNTRY OF LOST CHILDREN

SOCIETY: THE COUNTRY OF LOST CHILDREN

Her mind often flashes back to the days when she had to silently endure beatings, hunger and being locked up. She confines herself in a room to weep her heart out when the vivid memories of a hellish year disturb her. Ten years ago, Bushra Tabassum got divorced from her first husband but the trauma of an abusive child marriage still haunts her.

As in many other places in the country, in the main city of district Chakwal, just 90 kilometres away from the federal capital, the culture of early marriages has ruined the lives of many girls such as Bushra Tabassum, who was married when she was 15.

With uncertain means of livelihood and five children to raise, Tabassum’s parents married her off in adolescence to rid themselves of their parental obligation. But they had no idea it would backfire, burdening them with more lifelong responsibilities.

Early marriages are a vicious cycle of poor health, lack of education, poverty and, often, violence

In her new home, she was supposed to do all the domestic chores of a big family and, when she couldn’t manage that, she was beaten by her husband and in-laws. “My husband’s nine brothers and sisters used to complain to him if I could not launder their clothes and he would give me merciless beatings,” recalls Tabassum who is now 26. “They would lock me up in a room for not fulfilling the demands of all the family members.”

As she had dropped out of school after class two, she had no idea how to respond or deal with the situation. She continued to endure everything until her mother noticed scars on her face. “When I conceived, he kicked and hit me with everything he could lay his hands on as he could not afford to raise a child because of his low income. When my mother spotted some deep scars on my face and body, on her insistence, I revealed the situation to her.”

This further infuriated her husband and he kicked her out of the house at midnight. “I remember the night when he threw me out of his home close to midnight, and I spent the night sitting in front of the gate alone,” her voice chokes with emotions. “In the morning, the neighbours hired a rickshaw for me so that I could go to my parents’ home.”

Tabassum’s mother didn’t let her have an abortion so she sustained her pregnancy and delivered her baby by Caesarean section. She suffered multiple complications due to the physical violence endured at the age of 16 during pregnancy. She developed abdominal and urinary infections that took a lot of time and money to heal, her mother says.

The wounds of first marriage were still fresh when she was again married off to a 65-year-old man who was already married twice. There she was poisoned and sent back after a few days. She does not know why this was done to her.

“My daughter was so beautiful and young but now she looks older than her age,” Tabassum’s mother laments. “We made a mistake by marrying her but we were compelled to do so because of her father’s ill health.”

Tabassum’s daughter is eight years old now. the child has also developed a problem with her sight because of violence her mother had suffered during pregnancy, but they can’t afford to visit an ophthalmologist.

Human rights issue

While child marriages make girls vulnerable to the kinds of violence visited on Tabassum, these extreme cases are not the only issue with under-age marriages. “Child marriage is a denial of education, health and basic human rights,” asserts Shagufta H. Bhatti, who directs a non-government programme lobbying for an end to child marriage. “If a girl between the age of 15 and 19 gets pregnant, an undernourished girl whose organs haven’t yet developed fully gives birth to a malnourished child. Thus she perpetuates a vicious cycle of malnourishment, illness, and poverty.” Since this practice exists mostly in poor and uneducated families, the girls are usually likely to be malnourished to begin with.

The risk of mothers and children dying because of pregnancy-related issues or developing various complications later increases in early marriages, she says. Along with other reasons, child marriages contribute to high infant and maternal mortality rates in Pakistan. Children whose mothers have no education are more likely to die young (91 deaths per 1,000 live births, according to PDHS data) than children whose mothers are at least 20 years old and have secondary or higher education (38 deaths per 1,000 live births).

Bushra Tabassum takes care of her child as she tries to forget the trauma she suffered
Bushra Tabassum takes care of her child as she tries to forget the trauma she suffered

Obstetric fistula is also a childbirth injury mostly seen in underage marriages and at the hands of unskilled birth attendants, leaving devastating consequences on the lives of young women. Although identifying patients has been difficult, as many women with fistula do not know that what they are suffering from is a medical condition that is treatable, according to UNFPA, about 4,000 to 5,000 cases of obstetric fistula occur in Pakistan every year.

National and provincial laws in Pakistan, except in Sindh, allow underage marriages for girls. In Sindh, too, where the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 2013 bans marriage under the age of 18 for both sexes, implementation lags behind the law. Laws in other provinces and territories allow girls to be married at 16 and boys at 18.

Taking measures to end child marriages is not only important for our children, says Bhatti, but international commitments such as Sustainable Development Goals, Convention on the Rights of the Child, International Convenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and declarations from the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and OIC also bind Pakistan to act against child marriages.

Discriminatory laws

National and provincial laws in Pakistan, except in Sindh, allow underage marriages for girls. In Sindh, too, where the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 2013 bans marriage under the age of 18 for both sexes, implementation lags behind the law. Laws in other provinces and territories allow girls to be married at 16 and boys at 18.

Various efforts were made in the past for enactment of a law to declare underage marriage as illegal and to increase the minimum legal age of marriage from 16 to 18 years for girls, but the bills could not be passed through the parliament because of opposition from the clergy and legislators. In January 2016, a bill by PML MNA Marvi Memon proposing the prohibition of child marriages was rejected by the parliamentary committee on religious affairs after the Council of Islamic Ideology opposed it and dubbed it ‘un-Islamic’.

In 2017, PPP Senator Sehar Kamran’s bill also deemed as ‘un-Islamic’ was rejected by the Senate Standing Committee for Interior. Though the committee gave its nod later, the bill could not be presented in the house for approval.

“Child marriage is a denial of education, health and basic human rights,” asserts Shagufta H. Bhatti, who directs a non-government programme lobbying for an end to child marriage.

Moved by PPP Senator Sherry Rehman, a similar amendment bill with minor changes is currently in the parliament again. It proposes 18 years as the minimum age of marriage for girls (the same as that of boys), and punishment of one year of imprisonment or 100,000 rupees fine or both for the violators.

The Child Marriage Restraint (Amendment) Bill 2018 (only for Islamabad Capital Authority) has been passed by the Senate amidst opposition from religious and political parties and from some government lawmakers too.

It is hoped, however, that it would have smooth sailing in the National Assembly as the both government and opposition parties as well as civil society representatives have supported the bill.

Other provinces and territories, especially the most populated province of Punjab, have yet to deliberate on the issue to bring up such legislations for the prevention of marriage of under-18 girls.

Saima Noreen found refuge at her sister’s place
Saima Noreen found refuge at her sister’s place

Embedded culture

In a small town of Anwarabad in the main city of Chakwal, every household has the same story.

Twenty-eight-year-old Saima Noreen, who now lives with her sister, was married against her will at 16, right after her class 10 exams. She wanted to continue her education but her elder brother, acting as her guardian, married her off. She had lost her parents earlier.

Noreen describes her one-year marriage as a painful experience, as both her own family and her in-laws had abandoned her without any financial and moral support. “I was always an outcaste and unwanted at my husband’s home,” she says. “My own family never visited me so I left my husband’s home and started to live with one of my married sisters.”

Despite being a differently-abled person, she acquired training and drove a female-only auto rickshaw provided by an international NGO. “I was happy that at least I was earning something and contributing financially. But since the international agency was forced to close down its operation in Pakistan, I’m now jobless.

“It feels terrible to live in someone else’s home and not be able to contribute anything,” she says. “But there are no employment opportunities for women who are not highly educated.”

The incidence of early marriages is higher among women than men in Pakistan. Recent government data by the Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey (PDHS) 2017-18 shows that 29 percent of women (age 25 to 49) were married by age 18, as compared to five percent of men (30 to 49 years). About 13.5 percent of adolescent girls aged 15 to 19 are married and 13 percent give birth by age 18, according to PDHS 2017-18. Fifteen percent of teenage girls in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa had begun childbearing as compared to only six percent in Punjab.

While the overall percentage of child marriage has slightly decreased in comparison to the last government estimates, in the age group of 15 years, it has increased from 1.6 to 1.8 percent.

Religious misconceptions

Although poverty and cultural practices promote child marriages, religious misconceptions are one of the main reasons of this menace. People believe there is no harm in early marriage and that religion promotes it. An often quoted example is the marriage of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) with Hazrat Aisha (RA) who, according to popular Islamic traditions, was nine years old at the time of marriage.

But there is another school of thought that proves, with strong circumstantial evidence, that the age of the Prophet’s wife was 18 years when the marriage was consummated.

Even if it is presumed that Aisha was nine years old, it doesn’t mean it is compulsory for society to follow the same example now, since that was the Prophet’s attribute in the context of that time and culture, says Mohammad Shareef Hazarvi, an Islamic scholar and Imam of Darusalaam Mosque, Islamabad.

Neither early marriage is obligatory nor forbidden, he says, further explaining that Islam promotes marriage when someone attains puberty and maturity and is thus in a better position to understand and handle relations to play a positive role in society. “It’s a social issue, so states and societies can make laws according to the health, education and social conditions of its citizens.”

There is also a decree by Al-Azhar University, Egypt, that gives governments the right to determine the age for marriage and supports marriage after 18.

Meanwhile, Tabassum regrets not having acquired an education. She feels if she had some education she could have been able to earn something to raise her daughter instead of relying on her parents. Her daugher is currently in Class One and Tabassum does regularly go to drop and pick her up from school. “I want her to get a good education so she does not have to suffer the way I did.”

Dawn

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