World

The Child Brides Of Pakistan

| by Nik Bonopartis

Janaat Ahmed says it's her fault that she gave birth to daughters, but never a son -- and that's why she agreed when her husband said he wanted a second wife.

"I feel shame that I don't have a son," the Pakistani woman told The Associated Press. "I myself allowed my husband to get a second wife."

That second wife is Sabeel Ramzan, who also lives in the Punjab village of Jampur the Ahmeds call home. Sabeel agreed to the marriage -- and to becoming Wazir Ahmed's second wife -- on one condition: The Ahmed's daughter, Saima, would have to marry her brother, Mohammad Ramzan.

Mohammad is 36 years old, mute and deaf. He has, according to the AP, a "childlike mind." Saima was 13 when she was exchanged for Sabeel in an arrangement known in Pakistan as "Watta Satta," which means give and take.

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Trying to communicate with an AP reporter, Mohammad confirmed his young bride's age by counting on his fingers, stopping at 13 and pointing at his wife.

"No one had been willing to give their daughters to my brother," Sabeel said, explaining why she insisted on the exchange.

Using a makeshift form of sign language -- interpreted for the reporter by his relatives -- Mohammad said he was hesitant at first to accept the marriage.

"I didn't want to marry her so young," Mohammad said with hand gestures. "I said at the time, 'She is too young,' but everyone said I must."

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Such marriages aren't uncommon in Pakistan, where daughters are often considered a burden and parents prefer sons who can earn money, help maintain the household, and don't require the financial burden of a dowry when they come of age to marry.

Three percent of Pakistani children are married by the time they're 15 years old, according to UNICEF, reports Al Jazeera. Another 21 percent are married off by the time they're 18, and more than 10 percent of underage female brides become mothers before they're 18, statistics show.

According to Pakistani law, girls 16 years of age or older can be legally married; for boys, the minimum age is 18.

Although it's rare for authorities to get involved in marriage disputes, a tipster informed local police that Saima had been married off at 13 years old. When police interviewed Saima, she told them she was 16 when she was married to Mohammad. She did it to protect her husband and her father, she told the AP.

Pakistani lawmakers were condemned earlier in 2016 after withdrawing a bill meant to end child marriage by raising the minimum legal age to 18 for females. Lawmakers, who appeared poised to pass the bill, reversed their decision when the Council of Islamic Ideology voiced its opposition.

The council advises Pakistan's parliament on whether its legislation is compatible with Sharia law, according to The Washington Post, and called the proposed bill "blasphemous" and "un-Islamic." The council, which previously tried to make DNA evidence inadmissible in rape cases, also played a pivotal role in striking down a similar bill against child marriage in 2014.

The organization Girls Not Brides, which works to end child marriage in developing countries, says the Council of Islamic Ideology makes it difficult for Pakistani lawmakers to implement reforms.

But it's not just pressure from the council that stands in the way of ending child marriage.

For young girls like Saima, cultural and tribal traditions allow families to marry daughters off while girls their age in other parts of the world are still considered children. It's a crippling cycle, the AP report notes, trapping the young girls in poverty and starting them off on a lifelong commitment to caring for older husbands, who will in turn demand sons.

In the heavily religious region of Punjab and similar areas, parents feel they have a responsibility to marry their daughters off once the girls reach puberty, according to Faisal Tangwani, regional coordinator for the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

"If it is not done, our society thinks parents have not fulfilled their religious obligation," Tangwani explained.

As for Saima, she didn't have any choice in the matter.

Mohammad's "sister and my father fell in love and they exchanged me," she said. "Yes, I am afraid of my father, but it is his decision who I will marry and when."

Her mother, Janaat, said she did not want her daughter running off with a boy who hadn't been chosen for her.

"That would be a shame for us. We would have no honor. No. When they reach puberty quickly, we have to marry them," Janaat said. "Daughters are a burden, but the sons, they are the owners of the house."

Haseena Ramzan, Saima's niece by marriage, recalled feeling sorry for the 13-year-old as she moved into her new home as Mohammad's wife.

"At her age," Haseena said, "she should have been playing."

Sources: AP via The Oklahoman, The Washington Post, Al Jazeera / Photo credit: Too Young To Wed

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