It is estimated that over 3 million people are living in conditions of modern slavery in Pakistan (GSI 2018). Children are subjected to modern slavery in the form of forced marriage. It is estimated that 21% of girls in Pakistan are married before the age of 18. Child marriage in the country is connected with tradition, culture and custom. It occasionally involves the transfer of money, settlement of debts or exchange of daughters sanctioned by a Jirga or Panchayat.
Samina was forced into child marriage as her parents could not afford to support nine girls.
We used to live in a village near Multan city. We were 9 sisters, and no brother. My parents wanted to have a son, so they kept trying, and continued to add unwanted daughters to the family. My father worked on daily wages, which were not regular and not sufficient to meet our basic needs. Still I was going to the village school. I had a passion for studies, and wanted to join the army – a rare dream for a girl.
In poor households, daughters’ dreams do not matter. They don’t earn, and are not expected to earn in the future as well, so they are a burden. The easiest way to get rid of this burden is to marry them off – an old man’s burden is shifted to a young man’s shoulders. Girl remains a burden nevertheless.
This is what happened in my case. My dreams were shattered, I left my books and shattered dreams behind, and moved to my husband’s house. My husband, 20 years old, was not ready to take up the burden my father had transferred to him. He simply refused to take up the responsibilities of a married life. So I had to step in and shoulder his responsibilities as well as mine.
I would wake up early in the morning, and go to work in the fields of a wealthy landlord. He would pay me peanuts for 10 to 12 hours of work. I would get back home with some food, and get down to household chores. After feeding my husband in the evening, I had to gratify his sexual needs at night. This never-ending cycle would go on and on.
The sexual intercourse was unbearably painful. I did not understand it, but I had no way to escape it. Time flies. I do not know how four years passed, and I got four children – more mouths to feed, more expenses, more responsibilities – life became more and more intolerable.
Things started to change in the 5th year of my marriage. I don’t know what happened, but somehow my husband changed. He realised that I was working too hard, and he was not helping, rather he was a burden on me. He started taking up family responsibilities, looking for work and contributing to the family income. Life became a little bearable.
As things improved, I started thinking of improving it further. I took a bold decision. I did not want to repeat the mistake my parents had made. I decided I would not have any more kids. I went to a local family planning centre, and learnt about ways to avoid pregnancy.
As my husband learnt some skills and became a skilled worker, his earnings increased manifold. A time came when we realised that I did not have to work in the field anymore. We could live off my husband’s earnings comfortably.
Suddenly, I had loads of free time, and did not know what to do with it. I had forgotten to sit idle in past so many years. I had no hobbies, no leisure activity to indulge in. I thought I must make good use of my free time, yet I did not know what good use it could be.
One day, when I was reflecting on my life, I thought there would be many more girls like me suffering due to early marriages. It is so common, it is all around. In only five minutes, I could count around 15 child brides in my neighbourhood! I thought I must help them.
That is when I found out about Bedari. I met its field staff, invited them to work in our village and offered them my full support. They agreed. Now I have established a club for out-of-school children. I am not educated, so I cannot teach them. We have hired an educated lady to teach the kids. I make sure that people send their children to the children’s club. We organise community awareness sessions on women’s and children’s issues. Child marriage is one of the most important issues we are working on.
I have made friends – men and women – who are against child marriages and violence. Together, we will make our village a ‘Child Marriage Free Village’.