In the small, dusty city of Khairpur, in Pakistan’s southern province of Sindh, with its bazaars selling the hand-spun, embroidered cloth typical of the region, as well as the dates grown widely in the area, Sumera, 11, is in high spirits.
The bright-eyed girl, her long, dark hair braided in a glossy pig-tail, is due to get married in a week, and her delight over the coloured bangles, yards of embroidered cloth and glittery footwear spread across the small house where she lives, is typical of any little girl.
“It is fun to get married. Everyone pays attention to me, and my skin has been rubbed with ‘uptan’ [a traditional turmeric-based paste to soften skin], just like the beautiful women I see in television dramas,” the girl said.
But in the next room, Sumera’s mother, Kalsoom Begum, is in a more sombre mood. The mother of six children, five of them daughters, is visibly upset at seeing her eldest child married off so early. There are also other reasons for her sadness. Though Sumera does not yet know this, the man she is about to marry is 45 years old, nearly four times her own age. He has paid Sumera’s father the equivalent of US $4,237 for her hand.
“She is only a little girl. She knows nothing of what marriage is all about or the relations with her husband that will come with it,” Kalsoom explained.
In Khairpur, a city of some 125,000 people, located 450 km northeast of the port city of Karachi, Pakistan’s largest urban centre and the capital of the Sindh province, such marriages are increasingly common.
The annual number of child marriages taking place in Pakistan remains unknown. It is believed most such forced marriages, many occurring in relatively remote rural areas, go unreported.
Amnesty International (AI), in a report in 2002, found that such marriages were widespread, despite increased awareness about violence against women in all forms. The United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), has been campaigning against forced marriages in Pakistan, but for the present, despite these efforts, the trend continues, rights activists say.
The Sindh and southern Punjab region is one of the most impoverished in the country, and research carried out into the issue indicates this is a key factor in the increase in such unlawful unions, with parents often tempted to sell off young girls in exchange for the high price offered by grooms, often many times the age of their ‘brides’.
Bride prices commonly range from $1,400 to $5,000, with younger girls drawing a larger amount. Families facing acute economic hardships have stated they have “no choice” but to sell off girls to older men, while in many cases the deal is made by a single, almost invariably male member of the family, such as the father or grandfather of the girl, without consulting other family members.
“It’s a perverted society in many ways. We have reports that such marriages are becoming increasingly common, and they will stop only if the law is applied,” Hina Jilani, UN Special Representative on Human Rights Defenders, told IRIN.
Under Pakistani law, the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929 states no female under 16 or male less than 18 may marry. But like other pieces of legislation aimed at protecting the most vulnerable members of Pakistani society, the law is rarely enforced.
There are however exceptions. In March 2004, a judge in the town of Dadu in Sindh, ordered protection for Akhtiar, a 7-year-old girl, sold by her father to a 35-year-old man for marriage. The child had been able to escape her husband’s clutches, and her mother had gone to court to prevent the sale of her daughter.
Despite the laws, such interventions remain relatively rare. Organisations running schools for girls in rural areas of Khairpur and other locations in Sindh have reported that in many cases, girls are unable to complete their schooling as they are married soon after reaching their teens or even earlier.
The impact of child bearing, on girls who have not yet reached maturity themselves, is also often extremely adverse in terms of both their physical and emotional well-being.
Asia, 15, who was married off three years ago, is now back at her parents’ home, near Khairpur, with her two small children. Her mother, Dilshad Bibi, told IRIN the girl, sold off by her father to a 30-year-old man as his second wife, had been “treated like a slave”, raped, tortured and then kicked out of her husband’s home after he took a still younger girl as his third wife.
Under Islamic laws enforced in the country, men are permitted to take up to four wives. The legal provision that states this can only happen with the consent of existing wives, are widely ignored, as are those requiring the consent of both partners in any marriage.
Organisations such as the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) have documented cases of torture and physical violence against girls sold of by their fathers. The victims include girls as young as nine or 10 years old.
“There needs to be greater awareness on a wider level of the rights of women and children and also punishment for those who violate laws by selling their children. The impunity available to them has aggravated the situation,” said Jilani.
Meanwhile, Sumera, continues to playfully finger the bright, sequined shirt and skirt that she will wear on her wedding day, laying out the bangles that match it. For her, the entire event is little more than a child’s game. But she has yet to know how the game will end.