By Bina Shah
March 17th, 2015
IN early March I had the privilege of meeting 90 young girls from the outskirts of Malir who had participated in the She Leads Campaign against Child Marriage. They were trained by Rutgers-WPF, a Dutch NGO, to advocate against child marriage and for girls’ education, amongst their friends and families in Jam Khanda, a rural part of Malir with dismal education rates, where many girls are married while still in their teens.
Under the programme, 210 girls in Mohammed Bin Qasim town, Malir and Gadap, and another 250 had been trained in Sanghar; they, along with their teachers, had reached another 9,000 girls and their family members through the simple method of door-to-door visits and conversations.
The girls travelled to a five-star hotel in Karachi to participate in a workshop, receive tablet computers loaded with apps dealing with SRHR (sexual and reproductive health and rights), and to celebrate having completed the year-long programme. They had prepared short plays and speeches about the disapproval and difficulties they endured when trying to convince the elders of their communities that child marriage is a grave ill in Pakistani society that robs girls of both their health and their futures.
Dressed in school uniforms and bubbling with enthusiasm, these girls struck me by their willingness to put themselves forward as community leaders in order to help other girls in their neighbourhoods. Such is the power of grass-roots action, which is based entirely upon the power of the people. By standing up in this movement, these girls had actually taken the power into their own hands in a society which doesn’t want to give power to young women like them.
A group of young girls talked of the perils of child marriage.
They were creating a revolution together, a grave threat to people who always wanted to keep young girls under their control by robbing them of the right to choose their own lives.
We heard from Sabr-un-Nissa, a 16-year-old student in Class 10, whose mother had died after giving birth to two stillborn children. Despite her personal pain, or perhaps channelling it in order to help others avoid her mother’s fate, Sabr-un-Nissa joined the campaign and managed to convince her friend Sadia’s family not to get her married off at the age of 15.
A few facts about child marriage: in Pakistan today, 37pc of its 90 million women are married before the age of 18. And one in 70 out of those young women and girls will die because of early pregnancy, not enough time between pregnancies, and other risks of teenage pregnancy. The risks are especially high for girls who get married and have children before their bodies are fully developed.
Traditionalists, socially conservative and deeply patriarchal, argue in favour of child marriage, asserting that when a girl reaches puberty, she is ready to be married. But her body is still growing, and her brain doesn’t reach full development until she is 18. Pregnancy poses health risks for young girls because the foetus will leach off all the nutrients the girl still needs to achieve her full growth, which can ruin her health for life.
Many families will press for a Nikah while the girl is still in her mid-teens, promising that the Rukhsati will not take place until much later so that she has time to finish her studies.
Unfortunately, even if the girl’s family agrees to this arrangement, the boy’s family starts pressuring the girl’s family to pull her out of school, claiming that she won’t need an education once she’s married to their son. The girl’s family gives in to the pressure, fearing the consequences if they don’t agree. In Pakistan, girls are still regarded as property, and once they are contracted in marriage to another family, that family hurries to seize that property and secure in its own possession.
By joining the She Leads campaign against child marriage, each girl declared she was not anyone’s property, but a human being with hopes and dreams and ambitions: a person in her own right, with talents, abilities, and potential. They showed courage in the face of the personal risk they faced by espousing this cause, but they knew they were contributing to a major social change and taking responsibility for removing one of the greatest evils in our society. They were, in a word, unstoppable.
The campaign had given a special name to these girls: Kiran, or ray of light. And in that room in that five-star hotel, only a blind person could have remained unaffected by their radiance. Thrilled with the doors that were opening for them, they rushed around the hall afterwards, posing for photographs with their new tablets. Witnessing their new-found confidence, their sense of purpose, and their happiness, I too felt bright about the future of Pakistan.
Bina Shah is the author of A Season for Martyrs.