Tribal custom forces girls into "compensation marriages"

A tribal custom which forces families to give their daughters away in marriage as "compensation" to aggrieved parties is deeply entrenched in local culture and needs to be handled very carefully, according to analysts and rights activists.

"It is part of the Pakhtun [more commonly known as Pathan] culture, which is very entrenched; it needs to be handled very carefully," Sajid Kazmi, an advocacy coordinator at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, told IRIN in the capital, Islamabad, on Wednesday.

Called Swara, the custom calls for a girl to be given away in marriage to an aggrieved family as compensation for a murder perpetrated by her family. It has already been described as "tyrannical, illegal and against Islamic law" by the Peshawar High Court, which recommended, in a November 2000 ruling, that a penalty be imposed on anyone practising this custom, according to an Amnesty International report.

"This, to me, is very important, because there are certain other customs in the North West Frontier Province [NWFP] where Islamic law is wrongfully interpreted and people, especially women, are exploited," Kazmi said.

The law needed to be implemented forcefully, Kamila Hyat, joint-chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, told IRIN from the eastern city of Lahore. "Send out a message to the police officers of these areas. If they do not enforce the law, they will be penalised," she warned.

Samar Minallah, an anthropologist and film-maker who travelled throughout the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), a hinterland of admittedly rough but ultimately very beautiful mountainous countryside on the border with Afghanistan, before directing a documentary highlighting the plight of local women caused by Swara, told IRIN after the film’s first screening that she had felt she just had to make the film.

"After meeting the girls given away in Swara, I had to make the documentary. Only we can do something for them, as they are not in a position to do so," Minallah said.

Called "Swara - A Bridge over Troubled Waters", the documentary is based on interviews with women given away under Swara, and with people either for or against the custom. "It attempts to draw the attention of decision-makers, opinion leaders and the general public towards this very important issue that, so far, has not received the attention it deserves," Minallah added.

"She is the prize of my son’s death and will be treated accordingly," one tribal leader stated in the documentary.

In a telling scene, a middle-aged woman described how she had been made to pay for a crime she did not commit. "I was forced to marry a man at a very young age by my father to settle a murder dispute; my husband also committed a murder, and wanted to give our daughter away in Swara. I refused as I did not want to destroy my daughter’s life," she said.

Once a girl is given away under Swara, there is little chance of a happy life, for there is no honour for these girls, according to Minallah. "The woman remains stigmatised until her death. It is about minor girls being given away mercilessly in marriage for crimes committed by their fathers, brothers and uncles."

The Aurat Foundation, a women’s rights and advocacy group, was working to prevent the practice of Swara, Rukhshanda Naz, the resident director for the organisation in Peshawar, the capital of the NWFP, told IRIN. "We are working on Swara through two levels: one is awareness-raising and legal aid to particular cases. The second is to build pressure at policy-making levels," she said.

The foundation currently has 16 Citizen Action Committees in the NWFP and 300 Network Centres for women, all of which are working directly with survivors. "Some people in the NWFP are not ready to accept Swara as bad customary practice, there is no serious effort by policy makers to stop this," Naz noted.

According to Minallah, inasmuch as the perspective of victims so often ignored. an effective cultural media campaign is needed to highlight the plight of women affected by Swara. "Through the film, I hope it is realised that this is not a positive practice, but a negative cultural aspect. The denial needs to stop," she stressed.