Women and girls represent half of the world's population yet we continue to fight for gender equality. Women are exposed to gender violence and struggle to secure equal access to education, health and economic resources in countries around the world, despite these being fundamental human rights.
Fundamental is a new YouTube Originals docuseries in collaboration with the Global Fund For Women, the world's leading foundation for gender equality and human rights of women and girls. Throughout the series, director and filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy shines a light on the incredible women around the world who are fighting the threat of the patriarchy, conservatism and repression.
In one episode, entitled "Rights Not Roses", we meet activist and human rights lawyer Rukhshanda Naz, who has dedicated her life to helping women and girls at risk of forced marriage in Pakistan.
Pakistan has the sixth highest number of child brides in the world.
According to Unicef, Pakistan has the sixth highest number of child brides in the world: 1,909,000. It remains a widespread practice in the country, with one in five (21%) girls married before their 18th birthday and 3% before the age of 15. In three of four states of Pakistan, the legal marriage age is 16 for women and 18 for men.
"Rights Not Roses" sees Naz tackle the socioeconomic and political barriers that put girls at risk of child marriage. The episode explores why child marriage is still prevalent in Pakistan and the facts that lie at the heart of it.
"This is a very common ideology that a woman's place is either in the house or in the grave. In this country, extremist beliefs are constantly used to dictate the lives of women and children; from their education to marriage, and then they influence the legislation as well," says Naz. "According to the Council of Islamic Ideology, a 9-year-old girl’s body is healthy enough to be married."
The Council of Islamic Ideology is a constitutional body which gives Islamic legal advice to the government of Pakistan. It has declared that laws prohibiting child marriage are un-Islamic.
It is a common ideology that a woman's place is either in the house or in the grave.
RukHshanda Naz, Activist
Naz says she got involved with the documentary because it's a subject close to her heart. She tells Refinery29 that her mother was a child bride aged 13, which motivated her to become an activist. "I felt if I was not independent myself, I might end up becoming a victim of early marriage as well. I knew from the beginning that I needed education and a job to be independent and the third thing that triggered me was having my own home.
"When a woman is born, her first home is her father's. When she gets married, her home belongs to her husband. And finally when she's old, her home belongs to her son. She never has a home of her own."
Naz set up a women's crisis shelter in northwest Pakistan called Mera Ghar (My Home) where women – many of whom are child brides – can seek refuge from their home lives. This is where she meets 13-year-old Zarmina. In the documentary, Zarmina confronts her mother for the first time about being forced to marry a 28-year-old man.
"I was the youngest in the family, I couldn't spend two minutes without my mother. That day, I came home from school in the evening. There were a lot of people at my home. I got really happy that I'd get to play and hang out with my cousins," Zarmina says. "But my mother told me that I had to stop going to school and I was supposed to get married the next day. She told me I would get new clothes, all sorts of nice things, a big room and everything would belong to me. At that age, hearing about such nice things excited me. I was quite happy and tempted. So I felt very greedy at that time. I was only a child."
Sometimes he would beat me with a stick. My back and legs were covered with bruises.
In the deeply emotional scene, her mother explains that she had no other option because the family was struggling financially. Zarmina then describes her traumatising experience of married life. "Sometimes he would beat me with a stick. My back and legs were covered with bruises. They wouldn't give me food for stretches of 7-8 days. I would still be suffering had my parents not seen the reality of it all."
Her mother says that according to tradition, girls should be married as soon as possible: "People generally don't trust their daughters. I, too, was married off at a very young age and so were all my sisters."
Naz believes ideologies like these can be changed by increasing awareness and engagement with women through dialogue, films or interactive theatre. She adds that education also plays a part. "The risk of child marriage could be minimised if young girls had access to higher education," she tells Refinery29. "Families and the government should invest in girls' education and facilitate them to acquire professions of their interest.
"I do believe the situation is improving and Pakistani girls are competing at each forum. However, cultural restrictions are still a major impediment to achieve women equality."
This episode of Fundamental will be screening in Toronto as part of the Female Eye Film Festival on March 6