Pakistan's wronged daughters

Published May 30, 2014
File Photo.
File Photo.

The institution of marriage is a fairly complex occurrence in one’s life. New beginnings among new people, bringing with it hopes and desires of happy and prosperous years ahead.

But what of those who start their ‘new’ lives without understanding what it truly means to be a wife and raise a family?

That is exactly what happened with Raheema, 45, a resident of Azam Basti with her husband Allah Wario who is 20 years her senior.

Raheema, was married off when she was just 12 and had her first child at the tender age of 13. The child didn’t survive due to medical complications and Raheema was bed ridden for almost three months.

But the loss of a child and Raheema’s delicate medical condition was not enough to stop her in-laws from pressuring the young girl in her early teens to conceive soon after.

  Dr Shereen Zulfiqar Bhutta
Dr Shereen Zulfiqar Bhutta

Raheema’s situation is hardly uncommon explains Head of the Department of Gynaecology at Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre (JPMC) Dr Shereen Zulfiqar Bhutta.

Young girls often fall prey to the illogical expectations of society. Families, especially mother-in-laws usually rush the girls to conceive. Some in-laws go to the extent of getting annoyed if a girl menstruates after the first month of marriage and start questioning her fertility.

A daughter, in some families, especially those from the lower and lower-middle class, is a ticking clock that starts counting at birth till she hits puberty, after which she is soon married.

These girls are married off at an age when they should be studying and enjoying life, instead they are robbed of their childhood and burdened with responsibilities. From taking care of their husbands, in-laws, as well as starting and raising a family, are these young girls cognitively and physically developed enough to meet the expectations of married life?

  Dr Azra Ahsan
Dr Azra Ahsan

“The maximum physical potential of the body is not achieved at puberty. Girls continue to (physically) grow and develop till they are at least 16,” says technical consultant to National Committee for Maternal and Neonatal Health (NCMNH) Dr Azra Ahsan.

“If they start reproducing at such a young age when their bones are not strong enough and their pelvis not roomy enough, a baby of any size will be too big, with the foetus’ head ramming against, and potentially damaging, the other organs,” says the obstetrician and gynaecologist with two decades of experience in her field.

Meanwhile, the Chairman for the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) Maulana Muhammad Khan Sheerani recently endorsed underage marriage.

Essentially what the CII chairman is saying is that a girl can and should be married off as soon as she hits puberty.

Pakistan Penal Code’s Section 375 V, however, reads that sexual intercourse: ‘With or without her consent when she is under 16 years of age’ is rape. The words ‘who was not his wife’ were removed as of 2007 making the law even more clear.

Recently, Sindh passed a law making marriage under 18 years of age, regardless of consent, illegal. While the law punishes all those involved in the crime, except the girl, it does not invalidate the marriage, which is still an issue, says High Court advocate, Maliha Zia Lari.

Within the last year, a similar bill was submitted in the Punjab Assembly while Balochistan is still in the process of drafting the law. According to the Pakistan Demographic Health Survey (PDHS), about 35 per cent of women are married before the age of 18.

But this is just the legal aspect of the issue.

To understand the hazardous implications of Maulana Sheerani’s recommendations better decided to look at the physical and mental consequences within the religious and social context for girls getting married at, or soon after, puberty.

Medical perspective

Early pregnancies can pose a serious risk to both mother and child, as Raheema experienced first hand. And then, there is the pressure for producing sons, resulting in at least five, six or seven children by the time they are 25 or 30 years old.

“On top of other medical concerns, there is no real concept of birth spacing which compounds the problem,” Bhutta says.

(Birth spacing is the time recommended between the delivery of one child and conceiving the next. The bare minimum ‘space’ recommended by Unicef is six months but doctors ideally suggest a two-year gap to avoid medical complications.)

The 45-year-old mother of nine ended up with successive pregnancies that took a significant toll on her health.

Raheema recalls ruefully,

I wasn’t allowed to use contraceptives by my mother-in-law, she would say children are God sent we can’t come in the way of that.

“The physical and psychological pressure takes it toll and by the time these girls are 30 years old, they look and feel like they are 60,” Bhutta adds.

No doubt, at 45, Raheema is not as old as her haggard appearance makes her seem. Her faded black kurta with traditional Balochi embroidery has lost its lustre, much like her life.

“Sometimes I would resent my children,” she says her voice so soft and she begins to squirm in her seat. She immediately corrects herself, “I mean I love them a great deal, I just wish I could give them a better life, better than mine at least.”

Psychological experts say girls who get married young and successively reproduce are considerably more likely to ‘neglect’ their children. This is mainly because these young mothers did not get the opportunity to live their childhood there is a huge disconnect between them and their children, where they are unable to relate to them or understand their needs.

It is also not uncommon for them to resent their children as their childhood was taken away from them.

For example, if a young girl has a child at 10 years of age. This kind of age gap is usually among siblings. Not only could it lead to discipline issues due to lack of an authoritative figure but also daughters may grow up with the apprehension that they will also be made to marry at a young age.

This creates a very unhealthy vortex that perpetuates a deterioration for the next generation.

Raheema gathers her thoughts then says, “Why did my parents do this to me?” The regret in her tone couldn’t be mistaken. “I can barely walk now, my bones are very weak but I have to work because my husband is old and cannot work.” After a brief pause she adds, “And I still have many mouths to feed.”

A member of the CII Qari Muhammad Hanif Jallandhri says it is the parents’ responsibility to ensure “that their daughters are mentally and physically ready for marriage.”

So why do parents rush to marry off their young girls, more likely than not, dooming their lives to domestic violence, bad health and emotional depravation?

In majority of the cases, the decisive factor is the parents’ inability to feed their over populated household.

“As a young doctor I would question these practices. A woman came to me with her young married daughter who had suffered medical complications. I asked her why she had rushed to get her daughter married and I still remember her irritated response: My husband and I work all day, should we just keep feeding them all our lives,” Bhutta recalls.

They hurry to make their daughters someone else’s financial responsibility. That is essentially how their mothers were raised, how they were raised and how they raise their daughters.

So while economics is the driving force, many choose the guise of Islamic teachings to make the act, of depriving young girls of their childhood, more socially acceptable. asked another member of the CII to explain exactly what the Shariah says in this regard.

“There is no doubt that according to the Shariah boys and girls can get married after puberty but they (girl or boy getting married) should also be cognitively developed, essentially having the wisdom to determine right from wrong,” explains member of the Council of Islamic Ideology Hafiz Muhammad Tahir Ashrafi.

Are children at the tender age of nine, 10 or in their early to mid-teens cognitively developed and educated enough to have the wisdom to determine right from wrong?

Cognitive development

“Just by saying the marriageable year should be puberty, or soon after, is not enough. There are a number of aspects that need to be considered. We need to look at whether the girls are psycho-socially, physically and socially mature as well,” says Head of the Department Behavioural Sciences at the National University of Sciences and Technology (Nust) Dr Salma Siddiqui.

Puberty is a physical transformation, whereas cognitive development means mental maturity. The start of this new chapter demands a much higher degree of acumen and poise to manage the unfamiliar surroundings and people than young girls possess at puberty.

“There are distinctive roles and responsibilities that we assume that parallel with age,” explains Rukhsana Kauser who is the director for the Institute of Applied Psychology and Centre for clinical psychology at the University of Punjab.

If we talk about puberty, or in the years soon after it, as a benchmark for marriage Kauser warns that children are unable to think at an ‘abstract level’ at this age.

They see things simply as they are and are unable to comprehend what they are getting into, how to deal with the circumstances or how to get out of it if the situation arises. While they may see two plus two as making four they are unable to understand why.

It is crucial that children be allowed to emotionally and cognitively develop before burdening them with responsibilities and additional roles of a wife, daughter-in-law, mother, etc. the experts insist.

“Younger parents with young children is a completely different demographic. If you can become a parent at any age without any qualification, filled with ignorance and no skills it could be a ticking time bomb,” Nust’s Siddiqui says.

  Dr Aisha Mehnaz
Dr Aisha Mehnaz

Another important factor is the age of the groom. If the married couple are both young then are they really qualified to start a family? Are they fit enough to take on the responsibility of a child? And what if the girl is less than 18 years and her groom is significantly older, how will she match the mental maturity of an older man? These are all valid concerns and must be addressed before marrying little girls off.

When such concerns are ignored the repercussions can be dangerous as Professor and Chairperson for Department of Paediatrics at Dow University of Health Sciences, Dr Aisha Mehnaz points out. “These mothers are in bad health, anaemic, malnourished, depressed, anxious and this leads to them not caring for their child. If the children are female, the neglect is even more which perpetuates the problem.”

Importance of education

Ashrafi, who is also the chairman of the Pakistan Ulema Council, agrees that education is an important factor which should not be ignored. “Education is imperative for both genders and when speaking about girls specifically, it is important to understand whether they fully comprehend what it means to be married and take on the responsibilities that come with it.”

On the other hand, author and education trainer Dr Waris H Razvi argues that the process of cognitive development is definitely affected by marriage, particularly that of a girl, due to an abrupt change in environment, people to interact with and faced with new meanings and interpretations.

“The development process suffers immensely when a rather young girl becomes a wife, and soon thereafter, put on to the path of motherhood. Initially, it has novel realisations coupled with fantasy but later, through the period, may often turn into an unexplainable phenomenon,” Razvi adds.

He insists that ‘even in the case of educated young girls, the development is not ripened enough to conduct the affairs reasonably and can result in arrogance and stubbornness.’

Contrasting to her own marriage at the tender age of 12, Raheema waited until her daughter turned 16 to to get her married.

Today, her daughter Koonj is a mother of three; a small step albeit in the right direction.



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