“I did my best to hide [my period],” says Aafreen. “However, my brother eventually found out and informed the other family members.” On the night of her wedding, Aafreen couldn’t stop crying. She begged her husband not to touch her, and mercifully, he agreed. Aafreen and her husband slept separately for a month before he took her virginity.
“My husband finally caught hold of me one night and said he wanted to be intimate with me,” she says. “He started to touch me and I began screaming. He covered my mouth, told me not to be afraid, and forcefully went ahead.”
It’s been over 65 years since Pakistan signed a declaration in which the government acknowledged that child marriage is a serious violation of human rights. Yet, today's estimates indicate that one in three girls in Pakistan is married before her 18th birthday. Child marriage is the result of a combination of factors, including gender discrimination, traditional beliefs, and poverty — and its consequences can be crippling. Fortunately, last month, a new law was passed: Sindh became the first individual province in Pakistan to declare marriage before age 18 a violation of the rights of children. Child marriage now carries a punishment of Rs 45,000 ($457 USD) and up to three years in prison. But, will one law be enough to inspire lasting change?
After a few months, Aafreen's husband’s brother kicked her out of the house. She now works as a seamstress to provide for her family. Although Aafreen is technically allowed to remarry, threats she’s received from her husband’s sons stand in her way; they promise to kidnap her children or kill her new husband if she does.
When it was passed in 1929, the Child Marriage Restraint Act was considered to be bold legislation. At the time, child marriage was common not only in Pakistan, but also in Western societies. Even today, the Child Marriage Restraint Act calls for a higher marriage age than many places in the United States. (We're looking at you, New Hampshire.) But, legal prohibitions and permissions don’t always reflect reality. The law in the majority of Pakistan suffers from a lack of adequate punishment — the penalty is Rs 1,000 ($10 USD) or a month in jail — and a lack of enforcement, which allows the practice to continue unabated. And, many families in Pakistan are forced to marry their young daughters because of sheer economics: There are few job opportunities for girls, particularly in rural communities.
Poverty is among the primary motivations for child marriage in Pakistan, and for some girls, marriage can be a path to greater financial stability and well-being — especially if their husbands' families are able to pay for these girls to continue their education. The reality is that there are few job opportunities for girls to contribute to the household income, particularly in rural communities. Families with girls must choose between living in deep poverty or getting rid of the economic burden of daughters.
Child marriage cannot be properly addressed without also seeking to alleviate widespread poverty throughout the country. Even women from wealthy families — who receive first-class educations and have the ability to make independent decisions about their futures — still face a certain amount of discrimination and social pressure. As a result, few choose to live independently; instead, they tend to remain a part of their families’ homes until they marry and establish households of their own.
Many girls who marry young are treated as property to be exchanged for goods or livestock. Some are traded to settle disputes among families. Once married, child brides are more likely to experience domestic violence and sexual abuse — from their husbands and other family members. And, instead of receiving an education or becoming skilled workers, child brides are tasked with household duties and the responsibilities of married life. These women are prevented from entering the workforce — making it all the more difficult to ever leave their husbands.
“Their lives are valued so low that, if you ask men, they’ll be willing to spend money to save their livestock, but not their wives,” said Nabila Malik, director of advocacy at Rahnuma-Family Planning Association of Pakistan. Fortunately, Malik and her colleagues have been working to change that reality, and things seem to be turning around with this recent, unanimously-supported, landmark ruling. Now that a precedent has been set, some people have hope that Sindh's anti-child-marriage law could be replicated in other provinces and enacted nationally. But, others, like H.E. Khawar Mumtaz, chairperson of the National Commission for the Status of Women, point out that a law isn't enough; it must also be enforced. “Greater awareness among those responsible for implementing [the law] is needed,” Mumtaz told The News. “Greater monitoring and accountability systems are required.”
While the government figures out how to carry out its new policy, young women like Aafreen and Shahana continue to endure their circumstances with courage and tenacity. “My girls are going to school, and they are doing well at their studies,” said Shahana. “Only education can provide them protection in the long run.” Indeed, soon parents in Pakistan may be planning their daughters' educations instead of their weddings.
Click through to learn more about child marriage and the work of Rahnuma-FPAP.