The sight of children caring for other children, sometimes just a few years younger than themselves, is not uncommon across Pakistan. Most often, the toddlers or babies lugged around by pre-teen or teenage girls as they go about their chores are younger siblings.
With average family size about five children per household, according to the Lahore-based Family Planning Association of Pakistan (FPAP), and often more, this is not unexpected.
But, in some cases, the babies are the offspring of the girls themselves. Even though child marriage, defined as under the age of 16 for girls and 18 for boys, has been legally limited through the Child Marriage Restraint Act 1929, and Pakistan in 1990 ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which bars the marriage of under-age girls, such unions between children take place regularly.
Marriages between children aged no more that 12 or 13 - sometimes even younger – are reported from time to time, whereas in other instances girls as young as seven have been "given away" to much older men, often to "settle" a conflict.
Statistics compiled by the Islamabad office of the International Population Council, headquartered in the US, reveal that 58 percent of rural females in Pakistan are married before the age of 20, a large number before reaching the legal age of 16. Exact numbers are not available, due to a lack of research and the tendency among families to lie about age when registering marriages. Indeed, many are not registered at all. In urban areas the ratio is 27 percent. Overall, the council reports, 32 percent of married women in Pakistan aged 20-24 were married before reaching 18.
Of the provinces, Sindh, in the south, has the highest percentage of early marriages among females, while the Punjab, the most developed, has the lowest.
Tradition is by far the biggest factor behind this trend.
"The doctor was angry with me when I took my pregnant daughter to her, because she was aged only 16, but it is the custom in our family for girls to be wed by the time they are 15 or 16, and I plan to ensure my younger daughters are also married early," said Tasneem Bibi, 40, from the Khairpur area of Sindh, about 350km north of the port city of Karachi.
She is unconvinced by warnings from medical experts about the risks to health posed by pregnancies at a young age, saying: "I was married at 13 and had my first child at 14."
Sometimes child marriages are not the result of an agreement between families, but the result of a ruling by a tribal council, most often to settle a feud or decide a dispute. Such a ruling was delivered late in May by a "jirga" (gathering of tribal elders) in the village of Chach, along Sindh's western border with the province of Balochistan.
Photo: Kamila Hyat/IRIN
|More than half all rural females in Pakistan are married before the age of 20, a large number before reaching the legal age of 16|
The gathering decided that 15 girls, aged between three and 10 years, from the Chakrani tribe, would be married to men from the rival Qalandari tribe to settle an eight-year-old feud.
The feud arose allegedly over a dog owned by the Chakrani tribe biting a donkey that belonged to a Qalandari. So far, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), which has conducted an inquiry into the matter, at least 20 lives have been lost in the killings and counter-killings ignited by the incident. The Chakrani tribe has not yet handed over the girls.
"It is terrible that such things happen even now in our society and it is worse still that the marriage of small girls is used to settle these matters. This is barbaric," said Iqbal Haider, a former senator and now co-chairperson of HRCP.
He also warned that "the girls need to be rescued as they are at risk" and demanded that "those involved should be jailed, including the parents of the girls".
The Sindh and federal governments have been approached to intervene in the matter but have not yet announced action.
HRCP has demanded the provincial government do so without further delay.
The holding of jirgas and handing-over of girls by them as "compensation" has been declared illegal by courts in Sindh and other provinces. Yet, such gatherings continue to be held and make decisions that determine the future of many girls.
Outside the realm of jirgas, however, child marriages remain a fact of life in Pakistan. Cases of poverty-stricken parents selling pre-teen or teenage daughters have been reported in the local media and other instances of girls given away as compensation have also occurred.