Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Mereso: The child bride who’s changing attitudes

Nine of the 10 countries with the world’s highest rates of child marriage are in Africa: Niger, Chad and Central African Republic, Guinea, Mozambique, Mali, Burkina Faso and South Sudan, and Malawi.
My country, Tanzania, did not make the list. But in traditional Maasai communities like mine, marrying off girls is very common.
I was married at 13 to a man in his 70s.
It happened during Christmas break. My father told my school that I had died. Even if he hadn’t, I would have been forced to leave when I got pregnant because that was the law at the time.
I gave birth to my first child within a year. I had no professional prenatal care and no trained medical assistance during delivery. I had to depend on my husband and his other wives for guidance. It was a very painful experience. Every time I became pregnant after that I felt sick and scared. Because of all these difficult births I have a hard time controlling my bladder and it can be painful to urinate.
Today, I am a mother of five at 29 years old.
In communities like mine, age is not understood as a number. Our traditional values dictate girls are meant for marriage, and when the men decide we are biologically ready, we are married.
Marriage is sometimes a way of forming and cementing relationships. But it is also a way of earning money.
My family received a bride price from my husband and then he took me away to become one of his wives. He beat me regularly, and so I fled back to my village. But my father and brother told me the price had been paid, this was no longer my home, I had to return.
It wasn’t until six years ago that I was able to take charge of my own destiny.
I ran away to the city of Arusha and met Rebecca, a volunteer with theYoung Women’s Christian Association (YWCA). Through counseling, workshops and friendship, I gained more confidence in my own voice and learned to support myself.
When I returned to my village, I found an ally: one of our community leaders, named Abraham. In his own extended family girls were running away from forced marriages. He felt obliged to support them by giving them shelter and food. Quietly, he was encouraging them to go to school hoping it would be a way to get girls out of their situation.
When he learned about how I was able to find support from YWCA he was inspired. Knowing there would be places for girls to go outside their communities helped convince him they would be OK if they left their marriages.
But I love my family and my community, and I didn’t want leaving to be the answer. So I set up a YWCA in my village and slowly, change is happening.
Some men and boys are not happy with what I’m doing. I have to be around others all the time to protect myself from harassment. I don’t know if my own father would approve if he were still alive.
But many are recognizing that this is the way forward — that girls have value beyond marriage. That we can earn money and contribute more to our communities when we stay in school.
My brother used to think I was wrong to leave my husband. But seeing how well I am doing selling traditional Maasai jewelry and clothing he is starting to respect my choice. He no longer beats me, but he still won’t let me have access to any of my father’s farms. Thankfully, I have supporters in my community who help give me other options to grow food for my children. I believe my relationship with my brother will get better with time. I am still working on it.
My mother is so proud. She used to fear my disobedience to my husband would reflect poorly on her and she would be cast out of the community. But now she sees I am welcome and respected and she is so happy to have me back in her life.
When attitudes begin to shift from within communities this way, then people start to have hope. And politicians gain more courage to act. Without support from community leaders, parliamentarians fear passing laws will cost them votes and they will lose power to make any difference at all.
Likewise, passing laws provides no guarantee girls will be protected unless they have community support: 158 countries have set the legal age for marriage at 18 years but the laws are simply ignored by communities where marrying children and adolescent girls is common practice.
In the fight against child marriage, the biggest battle is finding those who are ready for change and giving them the courage to speak to others.
Those of us who believe in the power of girls, who have seen what they can do when they have options, we need to tell everyone we can. We need to teach girls that it’s OK to say no to marrying before they are ready, and that there are places they can go if they have to run away.
We need to talk to families about different ways their girls can contribute to their livelihoods, so that marriage is not seen as the only option.
We need to show community leaders examples of girls who have stayed in school, learned skills, and have helped develop their local economies.
We need to convince politicians that they should pass laws to protect and empower girls, and that the people will support them if they do.
And we need to share our success stories with the world. Because people need to know we are fighting for change and they can join us in their own countries and communities.
Change is possible when we believe in each other. I am living proof.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

How to curb child marriages in Pakistan

Eight-year-old Zahida was married to Dilshad, 17, by her father Abdul Rasool in exchange for Dilshad`s sister, whom the father wanted to marry. Can anybody call this a marriage? And one can only thank the media for pointing it out, before Abdul Rasool could marry Dilshad`s sister.
This is obviously not an isolated case, and child marriages amongst children — and girls being married to adults — are a regular feature in our society. This is happening in a state whose founder introduced the Child Marriage Restraint Act 1929 as a private members bill in the British Indian Legislative Assembly. He himself married an under-18, and thus perhaps knew the hazards of such marriages.
We must also give our colonial masters the credit for introducing certain laws to protect the female segment of the populace. Female infanticide was one such custom that was prevalent in certain parts of India, and which was banned.
Girls were put to death at birth by some parents because of the possible failure to find them a husband might bring disgrace to the father.
A related custom was to marry children at a very young age. This applied equally to Hindus and Muslims. The reasons were many, including domestic and sociological causes, like desiring to perpetuate the family name by marrying the son early; by marrying the daughter early to escape the discredit caused to the family by the presence of a grown-up maiden; or by the desire of the mother to marry her son early so that she may sooner obtain possession of a daughter-in-law in whom the mother could inculcate habits of obedience and who could share the domestic chores with her.
Some even married their young daughters to the Holy Qur`an, or an idol, sword, dagger, arrow or a tree so that they may not appear unmarried to conquerors or their Creator.
Statistics with regard to child marriage are mind-boggling. According to the 1901 census, for instance, 121,500 boys and 243,500 girls under the age of five years were married. Between the ages of five and 10 years the figures were 760,000 and 2,030,000 respectively.
There were no less than 1,277,000 widowed persons under 20 years of age in 1901, of whom 914,000 were females; of these, 6,000 widowers and 96,000 widows were less than five years of age; 37,000 widowers and 96,000 widows between five and 10 years of age and 113,000 widowers and 276,000 widows between 10 and 15 years of age.

Child marriage impedes girls’ empowerment and fulfillment of their fundamental rights

In 2011, the United Nations General Assembly agreed to designate October 11, every year, as the International Day of the Girl Child.  The day is being observed globally for the first time this year to create awareness of the situation of the girl child and ensure greater efforts are made to improve their lives. The theme this year is ‘my life, my right, end child marriage’. 

The launch of this joint statement reflects the United Nations commitment to prevent child marriage, which directly affects Pakistan’s ability to achieve six of the eight millennium development goals.

Speaking on the occasion, the UNICEF Representative in Pakistan, Dan Rohrmann, emphasised that early marriage violates the right to health, education, recreation, protection and other social and economic rights of girls and young women. 

Married at such a young age, my grandmother was destined to suffer many hardships. SAMJHANA from Nepal

My grandmother was a child bride. Her experiences are representative of the many Nepalese women who are victims of child marriage.
When my grandmother joined her new extended family, her days began as early as 3 o’clock in the morning. She was responsible for all of the grinding work (using a traditional tool known as a dhiki/jato). She was also responsible for fetching water, carrying heavy loads of cow and buffalo dung to fertilize the fields, cutting fodder, washing clothes and dishes, sweeping and mopping, cooking for the entire family, among other tasks.
Married at such a young age, my grandmother was destined to suffer many hardships. At the tender age of seven she was unreasonably busy with all the household and agricultural work. To go to school and study was unimaginable for her, although her husband could go to school even after their marriage.
When she was fourteen, my grandmother gave birth to her first child. The child died within a month. Her second child also died a few months after birth. After that she had several miscarriages, and between each pregnancy she was confined to the house and expected to do all the work mentioned earlier.
Today, my grandmother is 82 years old. She has five children (three sons and two daughters), as well as 14 grandchildren. Last year she underwent surgery for uterine prolapse, a condition from which she had suffered for two or three decades. Although she was suffering, she was unable to tell anyone, including her husband, because of lack of knowledge and confidence.

We need to talk about sex - not just filter it out

A cheer spread around the internet in March when the EU voted against proposals that could have led to internet service providers (ISPs) having to 'police porn' online. If this felt familiar, it may be because MPs here rejected similar proposals in December that would have forced ISPs to block porn unless computer owners requested otherwise. Although temporarily shot down, campaigns to filter porn from young people's lives that drove these proposals haven't disappeared.
A similar Online Safety Bill remains in discussion in the House of Lords, and with online porn block advocate MP Claire Perry now the PM's adviser on childhood sexualisation, the government has reasserted its support for preventing young people from viewing porn. With much discussion about the 'damage' online porn does to young people, it's important to reflect on what we actually know.
These campaigns are often based on assumptions that excessive exposure to online pornography is harmful to young people. In truth, partly due to ethical challenges of discussing sexual topics with young teenagers, we know little about the impact pornography has on their sexual behaviour. A 2010 Ofcom peer-reviewed report of available studies found they showed no conclusive evidence that sexually explicit material 'impairs on the development of minors'.
Dr Clare Bale is a management consultant and sexual health expert whose research looked into how young people engage with sexual media. She believes they have more control than they're given credit for.
"Often you hear that young people are 'exposed' to pornography but what I found is that they engage with porn in a number of ways," says Bale. "They share porn for the 'yuck' factor, the humour factor and for pleasure. Some look for pornography but if a pop up appears online and they don't want to engage then they shut it down."
Although many professionals share Bale's view, this nuanced understanding of how teenagers engage with pornography doesn't tend to make headlines. The shock tactics that do, highlighting isolated incidences of sexual violence as proof of the corruption of young people by porn, can cause problems.
"If we moralise about it then we're closing down spaces where young people can legitimately talk about sex and sexuality," says Bale.
Sexual cultures academic at University of Sunderland, Dr Clarissa Smith, points out that trying to block porn is not a neutral act.
"By blocking things you're saying this is so bad you shouldn't see it. At some level, we're saying the human body is something that ought not to be looked at," says Smith. In research carried out by UK Safer Internet Centre last year, 13 to 14-year-olds reported that the fear of being judged prevented them from talking to an adult. Initial responses to an online survey into teenage pornography use by Smith also suggest young people don't want their parents to feel ashamed. Encouraging the message that porn shouldn't be looked at risks strengthening this barrier and efforts to try to block online porn distract from what young people actually need.
"None of those campaigns are very interested in thinking about how you might equip kids with the skills to understand the images they are seeing or to deal with how they feel about sexuality," says Smith.
Education specialists working with young people are quick to criticise suggestions that teenagers are spending all their time alone in their room masturbating furiously to online porn. Justin Hancock is an author of a book about sex and relationships for young people, whose website BishUK and resources about porn are widely used.
"I think it's often exaggerated how much young people are actually looking at porn on the internet," says Hancock, who sees teenagers more interested in gaming and social networking than pornography. For the occasions it is watched, he believes teenagers need safe spaces to ask questions and get clarification.
"Young people I work with know that porn isn't real life but sometimes they need to know which parts aren't real," says Hancock. "It's about filling in the gaps where traditional sex education ends and porn begins. I try to give young people the tools to be critical and literate consumers, which they are."
With sexual images in adverts, TV, newspapers and magazines as well as online, these critical skills have broad uses. Looking at wider sexual media with teenagers is something sex and relationships educator Gareth Cheesman finds useful. Cheesman asks teenagers to think about how sex and body images are presented on TV and in films, and then encourages them to take the same approach with pornography.
"Hopefully this builds in the skills and attitudes to be more critical in the future," says Cheesman. "Young people don't need to be lectured but encouraged to develop critical skills to protect their future expectations about what makes a happy, healthy sexual relationship."

New India Rape Law Hailed By Advocacy Groups For Stiffening Punishments

NEW DELHI-Women's groups are hailing a new law, passed March 21, that stiffens punishments of sexual violence in the aftermath of the notorious gang rape last December that left a medical student dead.
"The bill has made some huge improvements. By making stalking and voyeurism punishable for the first time, the law has recognized insidious forms of sexual violence against women. This is a big step forward," says Kamla Bhasin, a veteran activist and advisor at Sangat, a South Asian feminist network based in Delhi.
Since stalking is often the first stage of a crime against women, Bhasin says, if it is not stopped or punished it can escalate to rape and murder. However, she adds that the real deterrence will come from changes in cultural attitude.
"The law is necessary. But laws alone cannot bring lasting change. Society needs to change their patriarchal attitude towards women. The public outrage against the Dec. 16 rape showed that it is happening. We need to keep pursuing multipronged efforts to sensitize both men and women," she says.
Equally important, many activists say, are protections and support programs for rape victims who survive their ordeals and need help contending with the aftermath of threats and harassment.
"Poor families need the financial resources to rebuild their lives," says Kavita Krishnan, secretary of All India Progressive Women's Association, a group affiliated with the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation. "Relocating is not easy for economically disadvantaged victims. Neither can they afford medical care. The government must announce a fund for their rehabilitation."

Saudi Cleric reported to have married 12-year-old girl

A Saudi cleric has married a 12-year-old girl just a few days after a retired Saudi civil servant aged 55 years was reported to have wedded a girl of the same age and triggered a wave of criticism inside the Gulf Kingdom.
The unidentified Maazoun (Muslim cleric) married the 12-year-old girl in the southwestern province of Najran close to the Yemeni border after obtaining her father’s approval, the Saudi online Anabaukum paper reported on Friday.
The paper said the man married the girl although she was not aware of the marriage as she told him later that she did not know why she lives with him.
Her father advised the bridegroom not to sleep with his daughter until a year after their marriage and this decision angered the Maazoun’s mother, the paper said.
“I did not sleep with her in the first two months of our marriage…we only sat together and talked about Adam and Eve and other topics,” he told the paper.
“We had lived like a brother and sister but my mother became angry…she told me that I have to sleep with her because her age does not mean she is a child…I had to listen to her and have now started to sleep with my wife.”
The paper quoted the Maazoun as saying he first did not know how to deal with his wife on the grounds she is too young.
“When she first moved into my house, she kept asking me why she is here and why her family sent her to my house,” he said.
The paper did not mention the age of the Maazoun, whose marriage followed reports last week that a 55-year-old retired Saudi wedded a 12-year-old girl, sparking angry reactions from the local human rights group and the media.
The man married the girl, a student at a Quran memorisation centre in Jazan near the Yemeni border, despite strong objections from her grandfather.
Alwatan Arabic language daily said the girl reportedly told the local Muslim cleric she agrees to marry the man, a retired government employee.
“These acts should be stopped,” said the Arabic language daily Shams, just a few days after Alwatan, described the marriage as “a new tragedy.”
The wedding took place amid increasing calls by Saudi officials and Muslim scholars to curb child marriages in the conservative Muslim nation.
Saudi Arabia’s Shura (appointed parliament) debated the phenomenon last week and said it was considering enacting laws to stop such marriages.
Saudi Justice Minister Mohammed Al Issa said last month the Gulf Kingdom, one of the most conservative Muslim nations, is planning to enact a law to regulate the marriage of teenage girls following a surge in such weddings and growing criticism by human rights groups and other international agencies.
He said the new regulations are needed to put an end to what he described as widespread controversy and confusion about such marriages.
"The Ministry is studying a draft law to regulate the marriage of teenage girls," he said, without giving details of the law and the date of its enforcement.
"The marriage of teenage and underage girls in the country is not a phenomenon yet as some claim... those who say this are wrong. We are considering regulations in line with the Islamic Shariah to govern this kind of marriage."
Saudi newspapers quoted a statement by the Saudi Human Rights Authority (HRA) as saying last week that marriage violates the girl’s rights.
“We have set up a committee to study this case and the circumstances involved…the marriage constitutes a violation of the rights of this child, who at this age needs to be cared by her family, pursue her education and enjoy her childhood,” HRA said in a statement.
“We call upon all members of the community to rally against the marriage of children and teenagers. Media institutions should also play a bigger role in defending children and their rights.”

Saudi set to curb child marriage : Kingdom drafts law restricting marriage of girls under 16 years

Saudi Authorities have drafted a law to curb child marriages after a surge in such cases triggered bitter criticism by the local media and protests by human rights groups inside and outside the Gulf Kingdom.
The Ministry of Justice has drafted the long-awaited legislation which only restricts such marriages but does not totally ban them as it will give the bride’s father the final decision and does not include penalties for offenders.
The draft law, to be endorsed by the cabinet and passed by Shura (appointed parliament), bars Maazoun (Sheikh who performs marriage rites) from conducting the marriage without a prior approval by a special court.
The bride’s father can decided on marriage but has to obtain court consent if she is below 16 years old and must present a medical report showing his daughter is eligible for marriage physically and psychologically. The report must state that marriage does not endanger the girl’s mental and physical health.
The London-based Saudi Arabic language daily Sharqalawsat, which published part of the proposed legislation, said the court also requires the bride’s consent for consummating the marriage, especially those whose mothers are divorced.
“Once all conditions are met, the marriage contract must not be signed before the bride’s father makes sure she is fully prepared for the marriage life…his daughter must have training for the new family life before she is married,” the report said.
Quoted by the paper, Ministry of Justice spokesman Fahd Al Bakran said the draft law would be presented soon to the seven-man supreme scholars authority for endorsement before it is sent to the cabinet and Shura.
“Under the new draft law, fathers still have the powers to have their daughters married but they must have prior approval from a special court,” he said.
“As for penalties, it does not include punishment of fathers because they are the custodians of their daughters and have the final word regarding their daughters’ marriage…they know their daughters’ interests more than anyone else and we hope they will just comply with the new rules for the sake of their daughters.”
Saudi Arabia, one of the most conservative Moslem nations, have considered curbing marriages of minors for many years following a sharp rise in such cases and growing criticism of the absence of relevant legislation.
In recent comments, a Shura member who pushed for the enforcement of such laws, lambasted child marriages as a “murder of innocence and childhood.”
Zuhair Al Harthi said the majority of the council supports a law to end child marriage in oil-rich country, with a population of around 28 million.
His comments followed a chorus of criticism by local newspapers and human rights groups against fathers who sell their little daughters to rich bridegrooms. The campaign gained momentum in 2011 after reports that a 55-year-old man married a 12-year-old girl with the blessing of her father.
“To be frank, I want to say that the marriage of minor girls amounts to a murder of innocence and violation of childhood…it is an already losing deal,” Harthi said.
“These little girls are being subject to crimes involving manipulation, quick profit and mere pleasure…they are not capable yet of shouldering the burden of marriage nor can they even realize its meaning.”
Saudi Justice Minister Mohammed Al Issa has said the Kingdom is planning to enact a law to regulate the marriage of minor girls.
He said the new regulations are needed to put an end to what he described as widespread controversy and confusion about such marriages.
"The marriage of under-age girls in the country is not a phenomenon yet as some claim... those who say this are wrong. We are considering regulations in line with the Islamic Shariah to govern this kind of marriage."
Al Issa said he hoped the new law would contribute to "ending all problems and confusion associated with female teen age marriage".
In 2011, Saudi Arabia’s newspapers opened up the heat against authorities for their failure to enact laws banning child marriage following reports of the wedding of the 12-year-old girl to the 55-year-old Moslem cleric.
The cleric married the girl, a student at a Koran memorization centre in the southern province of Jazan, despite strong objections from her grandfather. The marriage also sparked angry reaction from a local human rights group.
In a strongly-worded statement, Saudi Arabia’s main activist group, the National Human Rights Commission, said the marriage violated the girl’s rights.
“The marriage constitutes a violation of the rights of this child, who at this age needs to be cared by her family, pursue her education and enjoy her childhood… we call upon all members of the community to rally against the marriage of children and teenagers. Media institutions should also play a bigger role in defending children and their rights.”

Child Marriage On Rise As Global Crises Increase, New Study Says

Humaiya, a 16-year-old from Bangladesh, hasn't yet worn the traditional wedding rituals such as kohl-painted eyes or a gauzy gold and ruby veil. Her mother and her grandmother were both child brides, but the cycle has stopped with Humaiya.
Though her father wanted to marry her off at age 13, her mother and a group of advocates intervened, Humaiya told The Huffington Post. She says she knows she's lucky -- as of International Women's Day Friday, 13.5 million girls have been married before they turned 18, according to a new study by World Vision, an international charity.
"Women have no rights to give an opinion in the family," Humaiya said. "My father didn't listen."
Half of all girls living in the world's 51 least-developed countries have been married before the age of 18, according to the U.N. The World Vision study, released to coincide with International Women's Day on March 8, found that such marriages are on the rise due to an increase in global poverty and crises. Researchers highlighted that parents living in areas prone to political instability or natural disasters are more likely to marry off their daughters at a young age, largely due to fear from these crises. Children living in these areas, such as South Sudan or Somalia, are also more likely to be forced into child marriage, the study said.
Erica Hall, Child Rights Policy director at World Vision, explained that the root causes of child marriage -- poverty and gender inequality -- are being exacerbated.
"Worldwide, there are increases in security issues and increases in natural disasters linked to global warming," Hall said. She cited the recent humanitarian crisis in the Sahel region of North Africa and Somalia due to drought and political unrest as an example in which many girls often quit school and are sent to work as domestic workers or are married, to reduce the burden on their families.
For Bangladeshi families such as Humaiya's, drought and lack of food are the primary reasons to discharge a young girl from her home. One of the most unjust impacts of this is education inequality. World Vision's research in Bangaldesh revealed that girls who were unable to attend school due to disruptions from natural disasters were more likely to marry early.
Humaiya speaks out about child rights issues such as early marriage and became an advocate through World Vision, which introduced Humaiya to HuffPost. She said she knows that her ongoing education in Bangladesh is rare. Some 66 percent of girls in Bangladesh are married before age 18, according to World Vision. Humaiya works to educate her peers in her village and speaks to government leaders, asking them to do more to stem child marriage and provide greater education opportunities.
But Humaiya told The Huffington Post that she has seen many of her friends married off, and described how disconnected she feels from the girls she has been friends with for five or more years.
"Now they are good cooks," she said. "They are like my mother, even though we are the same age. I don't know how to manage a family, but they know."
She explained that her mother was 16 when she was forced to get married, and lost a son by the time she was 18 years old.
In Bangladesh, the law is that girls can't marry until they're 18 and boys can't marry until they're 21. But the rules are not implemented, Hall said.
"The law is not the problem," she pointed out. "You have to have political will to do that and capacity and understanding among law enforcement. The goal is to get governments to enforce these things, and -- this is such an NGO word -- but it has to be a holistic approach."
Hall pointed out that requiring marriage registration and working on a grassroots community level is key to creating systemic change. She cited examples such as the Grandmother's Project in southern Senegal, a nonprofit partner of World Vision that focuses on reducing early marriage, female genital mutilation and early pregnancy by creating an intergenerational dialogue about how to shift the gender-role paradigm.
"That's been successful -- you know how grandmothers are -- in getting an idea like that across that it doesn't have to be part of the tradition," Hall said.
World Vision also works with religious leaders to address the practice of child marriage.
"There is a strong foundation in religion that children should be protected and they don't want girls dying in childbirth and these leaders say, 'This is a tenet of our faith and this is why we are going to start speaking out against it,'" Hall explained.
The issue of child marriage has gained momentum outside of the NGO world as well.Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced last October a public-private initiative that focuses on ending child marriage by increasing education opportunities, providing training among officials and tracking every country's legal minimum age of marriage -- in particular in Humaiya's home country of Bangladesh.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Huma's Story - Forced Child Marriage - Abuse, Torture, Escape

Huma came to Women for Afghan Women (WAW) three years ago when she was only 19 years old. When she was 14, her family arranged her marriage and a formal engagement took place. Her fiancĂ©, Saif Allah, often visited her after the engagement. One day, he arrived with blood all over his clothes. He proceeded to take Huma to his home, even though a wedding had not yet taken place. Huma and her mother were screaming but he just dragged her off by force. He kept her there for two months, during which time he raped and tortured her. Eventually, a wedding took place. To listen to Huma recount about her life with Saif Allah is to hear a litany of terrible violence against her, her mother, sister, and even against Saif Allah’s own relatives.
Saif Allah is a Taliban fighter and an unstable sadist. Over the years he tortured Huma in unimaginable ways. He hung her up by her hair and stuck hot pokers in her body. He broke her legs and ripped out her finger nails. She has photos of the original wounds and scars. During this time the only happiness Huma knew was when she had two sons. Her love for her sons carried her through this dark time.
After one violent incident, Saif Allah’s family took Huma to the hospital. She was discharged back to her own family's home. Saif Allah’s brothers came there and asked her to return. They promised to take care of her and promised that they wouldn’t let Saif Allah repeat the terrible violence. Saif Allah also promised to begin a new life with her. Huma trusted them and went with them again. She soon realized she had made a terrible mistake because nothing had changed. Saif Allah started beating her immediately. He told her, "your mother and sister should come here right now, otherwise I will kill you." Helplessly, Huma informed her mother and she came with her younger sister. Saif Allah beat all three women within inches of their lives. Her mother and sister escaped leaving Huma to fend for herself.
Saif Allah was so furious about Huma’s mother and sister’s escape that he beat Huma to the point that she lost an eyelid, and he bit her arms. Her sister-in-law told her that Saif Ali was planning to kill her and that he and his brother had dug a grave for her body somewhere. Huma decided that she couldn’t take it anymore. She knew of an organization which was helping widows. She decided to risk her life and have a chance at safety and freedom by telling her husband a lie. She said that her mother would be at the widows’ organization waiting for her. Huma asked him to take her there. Saif Allah took her to the organization. Upon arrival, he received a phone call. He said that he had urgent work and had to leave. He instructed her to return home with her mother and sister. As soon as he left, the staff of the widows'organization asked Huma if she would like to be taken to the police station. They immediately sensed her extreme danger and saw the abuse that had been piled on her. She eagerly accepted. The Chief of the 6th Police District took Huma to a hospital. Her injuries required that she stay for 45 days. Hospital staff understood that she needed to be discharged to a safe location and she was a taken to Women for Afghan Women’s shelter.
It took almost two years for our lawyers to get Huma a divorce because Saif Allah wouldn't show up in court. He continued to make endless threats against Huma’s family, especially her mother. Like her daughter, she had to flee and leave the family village and hide in Kabul.
Huma now lives in Kabul with her mother and is trying to rebuild their lives. WAW has hired her and she now earns a respectable salary working for us. She manages the emergency shelter in our Kabul Family Guidance Center, where we house women temporarily. These women either get transferred to our secret women’s shelter or get reunited with their families, depending on their particular circumstances. Huma is famous at WAW for the boundless kindness and gentleness with which she treats all the women who stay at our Center and everyone she encounters. She never attended school before coming to WAW but is now taking literacy courses and has plans for more education or vocational training. She has not seen her sons since she ran away and may never see them again. This is the part she can't overcome and may never be able to. She becomes hysterical, even hyperventilates when she thinks of them or when anyone brings them up. In Afghanistan women must often give up their children if they leave their abusers. Divorce Courts are legislatively required to award the children to the fathers.

How justice works in Pakistan's tribal areas and beyond

Justice in Pakistan's tribal border areas is a contested issue.

"We are quite clear what justice is. If someone kills, commits adultery or some other offence, they deserve to die," said Javaid Khan of the Utman Khel tribe in Bajaur Agency, one of seven tribal agencies (districts) along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

Talking to IRIN from the town of Khar in Bajaur, he said "tribal justice" was practised in the country, and killings had been carried out following verdicts delivered by `jirgas' (gatherings of unelected tribal elders).

He did not see these as extra-judicial killings or a violation of the law, saying: "We have our own means to keep order here… Yes, over the years, killings have been carried out on `jirga' orders - for murder, adultery or other offences."

Traditional justice is strong in many of these areas - but that comes at the expense of universally accepted legal rights, say campaigners.

"The `jirga' may offer justice in some cases, but there are flaws and there is evidence that the will of powerful tribal elders holds sway over the less influential," Asad Jamal, a Lahore-based lawyer, told IRIN. The less influential, he said, "would include women".

The `jirga' courts are a community-based form of justice, deciding right and wrong in areas where national official judicial structures are out of reach.

Their power is particularly strong in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), which are only covered by limited parts of the Pakistan Penal Code and the 1973 constitution.

Instead, FATA operates under the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) of 1901: colonial-era laws that condone collective punishments and lack a right of appeal or trial by jury.

Those who campaign against the justice of `jirgas', say they often deliver injustice, in part because women have so little power over their decisions.

"Since women are not represented on the `jirgas', verdicts often go against them," Samar Minallah Khan, a human rights activist and documentary film-maker who has worked extensively in Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa Province (KP), told IRIN from Islamabad.

Far-reaching influence

The hold of tradition and "traditional justice" extends beyond the more legally autonomous tribal belts.

Minallah said women in KP were "frequently produced before jirgas", most often in cases of `swara' or "marriages of exchange", where they were handed over to an aggrieved party to settle a dispute, including murder or other crime. "Under-age girls are often produced before jirgas by their fathers in such cases," Minallah said. 

The `jirgas' often help reinforce discrimination against women, which can be particularly acute in rural areas in the north.

In the remote Kohistan District of KP where, technically speaking at least, national law applies, three men were shot dead in January this year as a result of a long-standing tribal feud involving allegations their brothers had mingled with unrelated women.

"In Kohistan, the ease with which people are willing to kill women, often on `jirga' orders, is shocking. It is just something completely acceptable to them," said Farzana Bari, chairperson of the Women's Study Centre at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad and a well-known women's rights activist who headed a Supreme Court inquiry into the case.

"The ease with which people are willing to kill women, often on `jirga' orders, is shocking", Farzana Bari, Women's Study Centre, Quaid-e-Azam University "In our culture men and women unrelated to each other are not permitted to mingle at all," Nazir Kohistani, a businessman who now lives in Peshawar but has origins in Besham, Kohistan, told IRIN. He said he had moved to Peshawar when his three daughters were infants "so they could be educated and lead a normal life."

Women's rights curtailed

Maryum Bibi, head of the Peshawar-based NGO Khwendo Kor (Sisters' Home, in Pashto), which promotes the education and empowerment of women, told IRIN: "Such traditions, and the power of `jirgas' hold back women - preventing even their education, as well as other rights."

A survey by the Islamabad-based NGO Sustainable Policy Development Institute (SDPI) conducted in six KP districts and Punjab Province, the results of which were released to the media last month, found a large proportion of men in both provinces believed that there were situations in which it was necessary to use physical violence against women, and that banning violence was a "Western concept".

Nevertheless, SDPI's monitoring and evaluation team said that traditional `jirga' courts still had a degree of popularity in the surveyed areas.

"It is difficult to change established ways," said Shandana Bibi* who now lives in Peshawar, but hails from Mohmand Agency. "We as women can only try, but despite my efforts I have been unable to persuade my husband to allow our two daughters to study beyond grade five."

She says she will need to "fight hard" to allow her daughters to receive even vocational training in sewing or embroidery, and the right to leave their home to receive the training.

Businessman Kohistani says he has come up against the same issues. He told IRIN: "In areas such as ours, there are women who never, ever leave the four walls of their home, simply moving from the home of their parents to that of their husbands. I did not want my daughters, or my two sons, to grow up in such a culture, and therefore I escaped it."

However, escape is not possible for most. Nor do they necessarily wish to abandon old ways. 

"We live as are grandfathers and great grandfathers did, we keep to our own ways as tribesmen; we believe life must follow tradition so we preserve our culture - and we are proud of the morality that comes with this," said Javaid Khan from Bajaur.

He says his main concern is to "keep change away since it will worsen, not improve our lives, ruining morality, especially for women, who need to be modest and kept away from public life."