KARACHI: A provincial dialogue was held to deliberate on how best to achieve Pakistan’s commitment under SDG 5.3 on ending child and forced marriages at a hotel here on Thursday.

The event was organised by the Sindh Commission on the Status of Women (SCSW) and Shirkat Gah Women’s Resource Centre (SG).

Nuzhat Shirin, chairperson SCSW, while presenting her keynote address said that “In the homes of the poor one sees 12 to 15 children due to the early marriage of the mother but she is not a baby bearing machine.

“Our budget allocations don’t include money for awareness programmes. Here area police stations don’t even know how to handle an early marriage case. The police see [it] as a personal family matter, which it is not. Many people here don’t even know that early marriages are a violation of the law and how they affect the health of girls. The laws passed need to be revisited to check for gaps that come in the way of implementation,” she said.

“We say that women and girls are our honour and respect but at least give them their rights,” she added.

‘Many people here don’t even know that early marriages are a violation of the law’

Engaging multiple stakeholders, including government officials and policymakers, subject experts and civil society members, the dialogue was also an opportunity to discuss how to achieve Pakistan’s commitments based on key lessons from Shirkat Gah’s Humsathi project.

‘Mothers are strongest supporters of girls’

Madiha Shekhani, programme officer with Shirkat Gah, introduced the Humsathi project and some of its key findings. “The project is not just about spreading awareness among girls. It reaches out to parents, elders such as aunts and uncles of girls and society in general. It has also helped give confidence to girls so that they have started talking despite all resistance from society. There is now a better communication between mothers and daughters too as the barriers there have been taken down. Mothers have emerged as strongest supporters for girls,” she said.

“People too have started quoting laws to stop early marriages. There was a recent example of a wife threatening her husband of consequences if he went ahead with his plans of getting his underage daughter married. She said she will complain against him to the police. It worked even though the police still need to be sensitised to the issue,” she said.

Shahnoor, one of the team leaders going about spreading awareness, who with her team had only just returned from doing work in Shahdadkot, shared some of her team’s experiences. “We faced several challenges such as gathering girls and drawing out male supporters for the cause, talking to police personnel and nikah registrars but we didn’t give up. We were looking to change mindsets and even after coming back our work in that direction has not stopped,” she said.

A panel discussion moderated by activist, researcher and teacher Sarah Zaman highlighted the impact of child and early age marriages while pondering over solutions to prevent the practice.

‘Implementation is weak’

Senior country adviser on population programme of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, Yasmeen Qazi, said that implementation of bills and laws was weak and accountability was a weak link. “Are the parliamentarians monitoring implementation of laws in their constituencies?” she said.

The executive director of Ahung, Sheena Hadi, drew attention to the issue of physical development of girls forced into early marriage. “There are going to be a number of childbirth issues too. The girls are also undernourished and being made to carry out general housework is like physical violence,” she said.

Lawyer Maliha Zia Lari said that the rules of business for a law explain the process which makes them very important. “There is a lack of knowledge of stakeholders or institutions,” she said. “Also it is difficult to identify the age of a girl when reporting a case because her relatives and others involved in getting her married insist that she is 18. This can be remedied by registering births. The B-form should be made an essential document.”

Uzma Noorani, of the Panah Shelter Home, said that they kept girls who had married early till they were of legal age. “After reaching legal age, they can decide if they want to live with their husbands or if they want to leave them. The courts sent us 15 girls last year and this year we got six. In the case of forced conversions, the girls are usually underage. But shelter homes need directions about whether we should let the girls meet their parents. Usually they don’t want to see their parents as they can’t face them but they meet their husbands. It is a dilemma for us about whom the girls should be allowed to meet. There should be juvenile centres for such cases as in shelter homes the girls are exposed to an adult environment and most of the females there are far older than them,” she said.

Dr Kausar Saeed Khan, member, National Commission on the Status of Women, spoke about healthcare in child marriages.

Ravi Dawani, secretary general of the All Pakistan Hindu Panchayat, urged the government to set up National Database and Registration Authority (Nadra) offices all over the province. “Places such as Tharparkar must have Nadra offices. Parents must register births and get B-forms so that girls’ ages can be verified,” he said. “Then Hindu Panchayat should also share its data regarding each individual with the authorities as they do keep their records.”

Adiba Hasan, a parliamentarian, meanwhile, said that her five bills regarding women were still doing the rounds of departments. “They have still not been passed while girls are forced by their fathers, who also force their mothers, to marry early. Basically, all these issues are happening due to lack of education, and the men need education more than the women,” she said.

Summing up, Dr Aysha Khan, a researcher, said that the Humsathi project’s findings showed that change was possible. “But it is important to put in place the building blocks for social change, so to say. The drivers of child marriage are complicated and the solutions are as complicated and multifaceted. But we have to keep the conversation going,” she said.

Senior programme officer Shirkat Gah Afshan Naz and politician and advocate Mehfooz Yar Khan also spoke.

Published in Dawn, October 18th, 2019