Monday, June 24, 2013

Child brides blot tribal Pakistan

As international headlines for much of this month focused on the attack on 14-year-old activist Malala Yousafzai by the Taliban, what generally went unnoticed was the outrageous plight of more than a dozen young girls in Pakistan.
Last month, a blood feud between two battling tribes in the Dera Bugti district of Balochistan province was settled by a tribal "Jirga" (assembly of elders) that decided to hand over as many as 13 young girls in "vani" - an age-old tribal custom that gives females in marriage to males of another tribal group to settle a dispute.

The punishment was handed down by the Jirga allegedly presided over by a member of the Balochistan provincial assembly, Mir Tariq Masoori Bugti. Members of the legislator's clan, however, denied that he had chaired the Jirga, saying he was in Multan at the time.

On October 9, the Supreme Court took notice of media reports on the issue and summoned Mir Tariq as well as the deputy commissioner of Dera Bugti to explain the facts of the case.
"Mir Tariq absolutely did chair that Jirga; you can ask anyone in the Dera Bugti area," Ghulam Nabi Shahani, an elder of the rival Shahani Masoori tribe, said. "He was in attendance for two hours, and his brothers also joined proceedings later."
Nabi also alledged that Mir Tariq's guards held a man from his tribe hostage till all 13 girls were handed over along with a Rs3 million (about $30,000) fine.

Un-Islamic practice
"Nowhere does Islam say it is okay to treat women like commodities instead of human beings."
- Fiza Batool Gilani, Goodwill Ambassador
Child marriage - known as "swara" in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, "vani" in Punjab, "sang chati" in Sindh, and "vani" and "lajai" in Balochistan - are enacted in disturbingly large swathes of Pakistan and reinforced by customs that treat women as commodities.
Despite the fact that Pakistan is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of Children, which refers to early marriage as the marriage of people less than 18 years of age, 30 per cent of all marriages in the country fall in the category of child marriages, according to the Rahnuma-Family Planning Association of Pakistan.

"These young girls can be subject to rape while still minors," said Samar Minallah, a human rights activist who in 2004 filed a petition in the Supreme Court against the handing over of women as compensation to settle disputes. While Minallah's petition is still being heard, the vani of at least 70 girls has been blocked by the court since.

At a gathering of women parliamentarians and child marriage survivors organised by a local NGO, 15-year-old Shagufta, from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa's capital city of Peshwar, revealed that she was forcibly married at 10 to a boy of the same age. "It seemed like they just wanted a domestic servant," she said.

Rukhsana, also from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, was 11 when she was married to a 20-year-old man. "On the first night, my mother-in-law forced me to spend the night with my father-in-law and said this was their custom," she recounted.

Fiza Batool Gilani, the goodwill ambassador for Women's Empowerment, decried the practices as "totally un-Islamic".

"Nowhere does Islam say it is okay to treat women like commodities instead of human beings," Gilani said.

Formally, these marriages are prohibited in Pakistan under the Child Marriages Restraint Act, 1929, which punishes offenders with one-month imprisonment and/or a fine of Rs1000 (approximately $12).
But the law, according to many observers, is incomplete and hard to implement.
"Conviction under this law does not serve to nullify the marriage, nor is child marriage a cognisable offence, which means that the police cannot intervene directly," Usma Tahir, a policy manager at ActionAid pakistan, said.
Power politics

Government officials are often quick to trot out a list of fresh pro-women legislation enacted by the Pakistan People's Party-led coalition government in the last four and a half years.
However, many who hail from areas where vani and other crimes against women are prevalent remain sceptical that the new legislations will change anything.

"All these laws will mean nothing as long as parallel systems of governance and administration are in place," former deputy speaker of the National Assembly Sardar Wazir Jogezai said. "As things stand now, half the problems here are solved through Jirgas and the rest through constitutional laws and electoral politics. This confusion only leads to more problems."
"All authority in the provinces is vested in the security forces, which enjoy complete impunity. There is a political government in these areas in name only."
- I A Rehman
Explaining the recent vani case in Dera Bugti, Jogazai said the problem arose because Mir Tariq, who allegedly chaired the Jirga that delivered the extraordinary punishment, was both a parliamentarian and a tribal head. "When you have to balance the demands of justice, the tribe and your voters, justice will inevitably take the back seat."

Meanwhile, officials in the federal government say they are unable to fully enforce laws in the provinces after a recent amendment to the constitution placed women's rights under the jurisdiction of provincial leadership.

"It is now for the provinces to make comprehensive legislation and implement them to protect women from harmful traditional practices," Gilani explained.

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