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Childhood Interrupted – Child Marriage in Pakistan

Published: June 14, 2017
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While there is an increased awareness about the concept of child marriage, much needs to be done at grass-root level. PHOTO COURTESY: Haseeb Siddiqui

While there is an increased awareness about the concept of child marriage, much needs to be done at grass-root level. PHOTO COURTESY: Haseeb Siddiqui

KARACHI: When Safiya was married off to a man, some 20 years older than her, she was barely 13. Her body frame was slim. She was still gaining height and had no idea about the physical demands of a marriage or motherhood. Within just three months, this resident of an underprivileged part of Karachi was expecting.

“My brother was married to my husband’s sister. It was a watta satta (exchange marriage). They waited only until the day I started menstruating after which I was married off,” said Safiya.

The birth of her first child, born premature, was an ordeal for Safiya. She received several pints of blood for transfusion as she was anaemic and she barely survived. Today, Safiya is a 16-year-old mother of two. She laughs when anyone asks whether she even prepared for the marriage and for the responsibilities of parenting.

“Does it matter now whether I was prepared for it or not? Girls have to do what they are told to do. In our social strata, this is just how it is. We are like cattle. We are born, married off to bear a child and eventually one day, we die.”

In Pakistan, according to lawyer and gender activist Maliha Zia Lari, the legal marriageable age for girls and boys in Sindh is 18, while it is 18 for boys and 16 for girls in the rest of the country.

“A marriage with a female child under the age of 16 is punishable under Section-498B of the Pakistan Penal Code 1860. In Sindh, punishments extend to girls aged 17 under Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act,” she continued while shedding light on the legal aspects around child marriage in Pakistan.

Pakistan has recently outlawed child marriage and toughened penalties for those guilty of the crime in an effort to crack down on the practice estimated to affect one in five girls in the country. A minimum five years in prison that may go up to 10 years is the punishment, in addition to a fine of up to Rs1 million. A legislation passed by the National Assembly (NA) in February 2017, also bans forced marriage involving women from minority groups.

For a second time, the NA’s Standing Committee on Religious Affairs in the following month unanimously rejected a draft ‘Child Marriage Restraint Act’ aimed at increasing the minimum legal age for marriage of a girl to 18 years from 16.

Despite the laws and surging criticism, child marriage victims like Safiya continue to endure a cycle of lifelong disadvantages and miseries.

NA panel refuses to raise minimum marriage age for girls

Pakistan is also a member of the South Asia Initiative to End Violence Against Children (SAIEVAC), an inter-governmental body which has adopted a regional action plan to target child marriage. Yet, at the grass-root level, social attitudes remain static.

According to a Unicef report, State of the World’s Children 2016, at least 21 per cent Pakistani girls are married off before they turn 18. Now, this number on the ground is, of course, higher since a significant part of the populace in Pakistan remains unregistered. Therefore, they also do not show up in surveys. Almost 60 million children in Pakistan are not registered at birth – approximately 65 per cent of children in the country – according to Unicef.

Regrettably, the ramifications of underage marriages are also both physical and psychological.

Dr Azra Ahsan, a gynaecologist and consultant at the National Committee for Maternal and Neonatal Health, disagrees with the argument that a girl attains physical maturity at 18.

“All the organs of a woman including the genital tract continue to grow and mature until she is 18. The emotional maturity, however, comes much later. To me, a girl at 18 is still a child,” she stressed and added that marrying a girl at a tender age and then lumbering her with pregnancies and children is taxing her capabilities to the limits.

“Sexual relationship, pregnancy and childbirth are catastrophic for young girls. For them, a sexual relationship becomes a nightmare. Going through a pregnancy is a test of endurance even for grown-up women and one can only imagine what a burden it should be for a child girl,” said Dr Ahsan.

She maintained that when a fully grown baby tries to negotiate its way out through a small immature pelvis of a young mother, it becomes a harrowing experience for that child.

Man accused of child marriage sent into police custody for five days

“This not only results in a horrible agonising pain but can also cause pressure ischemic injuries to her genital tract and the adjoining organs. As a result, holes known as Obstetric Fistula appear between the genital tract and the urinary tract and/or the bowels. She then dribbles urine or stool constantly. The lives of young child mothers are literally nipped in the bud.”

For Samar Minallah Khan, an inspirational documentary filmmaker, a girl is forced to grow overnight into a child marriage.

“Child brides are at a risk of physical and emotional violence, and pregnancy-related complications. Depriving a child of education means perpetuating a cycle of poverty, violence and inequality. The very concept of a girl child as ‘someone else’s property’ prevents parents from investing in her future,” she said.

In Minallah’s experience, child marriages are mostly practised in the garb of culture and traditions. Once a girl child is betrothed, she becomes a property of the family that she is supposed to wed into. “There is no concept of documenting such [child] marriages. There are legal lacunas to determining the age of the child.”

Minallah’s documentaries mainly focus on culturally sanctioned forms of child marriages including ‘pait likhi’, ‘swara’, ‘vani’, ‘sang chatti’, ‘irjaai’, ‘addo baddo’ and ‘watta satta’.

“Not many urban Pakistanis know about the forms of child marriages and which is why more in-depth understanding and research needs to be carried out,” she explained. Minallah underlined that during January 2016 to May 2017; only over 35 cases of swara, vani and sang chatti were reported in the media.

Gender activist Lari wants Pakistanis to start talking more and that too openly about the impacts of child marriages in the society. “We need to emphasise that child marriages are void and not a real nikah. We need to provide economic incentives at community levels for families insisting them not to marry off their girls at a young age.”

Too young to marry: Police thwart child marriage in Khanewal

“Any action taken must be consistent, state-owned and sustainable,” she added while suggesting campaigns at schools and strategic intervention points for adults.

While there is an increased awareness about the concept of child marriage, few voices have also started making a lot of noise against it in Pakistan.

Designer Waqar J Khan and his team started one such campaign that made waves earlier this year with the hashtags #fashionforacause and #againstchildmarriages. The fashion shoot showed three girls dressed as child brides, juxtaposed alongside their photos in sportswear ready to take on the world.

“The purpose of the shoot is to build awareness about child marriage, and promote women in public spaces, especially the sports field,” said Khan.

Younger girls mean long birthing life, which is considered important in our culture. Lari feels that it is still a taboo to talk about women’s sexual and reproductive issues and the hush around the subject means that people do not actually see the human impact.

“The custom [child marriage] is linked to patriarchy, power and control. We hear statements like, older girls get too set on their ways as compared to the younger girls since the younger they are, the more adaptable she is.”

According to the gender activist, women in Pakistan witness several examples around them – their grandmothers and aunts – who were child brides and mothers and so they also think, if they were fine, what is the problem?

“There is a reluctance to see a girl as a child. She is seen as a woman as soon as she reaches puberty and thus must be married off before her sexuality becomes out of control”, complained Lari.

While there in a rising need to bring a change in the overall Pakistani mindset, Minallah thinks that stringent legislation, complemented by strong implementation was also required. Most importantly, supporting girls’ education is one of the single best investments a country can make to help poverty and prevent early marriages, she added.

“A girl who has completed her education is less likely to experience violence after marriage and have children when she herself is a child. Above all, she is more likely to be conscious and healthy,” Minallah concluded.

Preventing child marriage has a significant bearing on women’s education in the country. Therefore, it is important that the state must challenge unfair social norms strengthening child marriage by using legal and advocacy campaigning tools.

 

With additional input by Ali Rahman.

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World Pneumonia Day: Saving lives with cell phones

By Farahnaz Zahidi / Creative: Munira Abbas
Published: November 12, 2013

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Pneumonia claims an innocent child’s life every 30 seconds, making it the number one cause of childhood mortality. DESIGN: MUNIRA ABBAS

KARACHI: As she steps out of a small grocery store in Korangi, she is carrying her nine-month-old baby in one hand and bags of grocery worth Rs300 in the other. Her baby is pneumonia free and she is one of the lucky mothers who have more than one incentive to ensure her baby gets regular vaccinations at Karachi’s Indus Hospital.

In this part of Pakistan, cell phone technology is being put to good use, often ending up saving precious lives. Under the “Save Life – Zindigi Mehfooz Hai” programme by Interactive Research and Development (IRD), a system has been set up to not just treat children with pneumonia, but track them and their progress by using Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology.

In a country where reportedly some 92,000 children under-five die annually of pneumonia, which contributes to 18 % of the total child deaths in Pakistan, this is good news indeed. It is also encouraging that there is no refusal by parents of children when it comes to the pneumonia vaccine. “We have immunised 15,000 children in the last one year in Korangi alone, and not had a single instance of refusal,” says a proud Dr Subhash Chandir, director of vaccines program at IRD. The Pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV) was introduced in Pakistan’s Extended Programme on Immunization in October 2012. “What fundamentally changed the game in Pakistan was not medical advancement but the fact that the price of vaccines came down,” says Dr Aamir Khan, IRD’s executive director , adding that a big part of the solution lies in social business models.

This use of RFID technology started with small water-proof, rugged looking bracelets given to children, which were scanned by assigned health practitioners to get a medical history of the child. Now, a small chip is placed within a sticker on the child’s vaccination card. Through that the child’s progress is tracked and reminder texts are sent. “Apnay phool jaisay bachay ki hifazat karain. Jamal Khan ka agla hifazati teeka aaj lagna hai (Protect your flower-like child, Jamal Khan’s next vaccine is due today).” Standardised texts like these serve as reminders.

To incentivise it further, a “lottery” is set-up whereby one in five mothers with children under the vaccination program may win grocery.

Pneumonia claims an innocent child’s life every 30 seconds, making it the number one cause of childhood mortality in the world. In the 2010 World Health Assembly, a resolution on the prevention and control of childhood pneumonia was passed. The UN MDG 4 states that childhood mortality should be reduced by two-thirds from 1990 to 2015. However, even now, globally an estimated 22 million infants are not fully immunised with routine vaccines.

The PCV vaccine costs around Rs1500 for Pakistan, but people can get their children vaccinated for free. The Hib (Haemophilus influenzae type b) vaccine was introduced in Pakistan even earlier.

Unicef shared with The Express Tribune that “The World Pneumonia Day serves as a call to action for parents, caregivers, and healthcare providers to ensure that infants are fully immunised against all vaccine-preventable diseases. Immunisation prevents between 2 and 3 million deaths globally every year by protecting against the nine deadly diseases of the childhood including pneumonia under 5 years of age.”

While the vaccines are there, they don’t seem to be reaching all Pakistani children who deserve to be vaccinated. “We have a grudge. We are pumping vaccines into a broken system. What needs to be corrected is vaccine delivery,” says Dr Khan. He feels routine immunisation needs to be strengthened, and it is wasteful to introduce new expensive vaccines into a system which is unable to deliver them.

Dr Chandir goes on to explain that the reasons include issues with the “Cold Chain”. Vaccines have to be stored at certain temperatures, but by the time they reach children, they may have lost their effectiveness. “EPI may have a network of vaccinators but often doesn’t have its people in strong positions at district levels. The human resource may not be enough, or is, may be, not being used effectively.”

“It is a crime because it is a right of these children to be protected against these diseases. Usually media stories focus on the vaccines — and not on the system. We need a better system in the country,” says Dr Khan.

Facts about the disease

• More than 99% of deaths in children due to pneumonia occur in the developing world, with half occurring in five countries – India, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Pakistan and Ethiopia.

• Only 61% of children with pneumonia are reportedly taken to a qualified health practitioner in developing countries.

• Globally, pneumonia kills more children under five than any other illness.

• Infants not breastfed are 15 times more likely to die due to pneumonia than those who are.

• Using a clean cook stove results in a 50% reduction in the risk of a child contracting pneumonia.

Source: World Pneumonia Day website

Published in The Express Tribune, November 12th, 2013.

Identity crisis: For lack of a surname

Published: August 25, 2013
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Thousands of children can’t go to school because they do not know their father’s name.

LAHORE: A few rays of sunlight creep into in a small, dark room hit earlier by a spell of load-shedding. In this room, one of two that form part of a makeshift school, 9-year-old *Akmal sits on a rickety desk with a second-hand Urdu qaaida.

This is perhaps his first encounter with a book. One of the many vulnerable children born to commercial sex workers in Shahi Mohalla Lahore, his reason for never having been to school is not just poverty. The reason is darker and more complicated. Akmal does not know his father’s name and so does not have a B form.

Thousands of Akmals are unknown, unregistered and invisible. Registration laws are a tightened noose not just for the children of sex workers but also orphaned or abandoned children, making options of a better life limited for them.

“I want to be a teacher when I grow up,” says the naive boy. In absence of a legal identity, the probability is less that he will be able to go beyond the initial Jugnu Literacy Program taught at this small centre in the infamous Heera Mandi. “We have been trying to sensitize nearby public schools to admit these children so that they have a chance at a better life. But in absence of a B form and with the stigma attached, they are not readily accepted,” says Lubna Tayyab, founder of the NGO called SHEED running the small program, herself born and bred in Shahi Mohalla.

“Since generations, women of my family have been in the flesh trade. I don’t want my daughter to have the same life. If she doesn’t get an education, how will she get out of here?” says *Samina, a sex worker and mother of three.

Of identity and crisis

“Unregistered children, whether of commercial sex workers or otherwise, can be at a highly disadvantageous position in several ways, especially those belonging to socially excluded communities.

They don’t figure in government planning. For all developmental purposes such as education, health and social welfare services, without birth registration and due to the inordinate delays in census, most government planners are unaware of certain population groups and demographic changes, thus, they are more likely to miss out on social services,” says Sohail Abbasi, Child Protection Specialist, Unicef.

As Abbasi rightly points out, without birth registration, these children lack credible identity and age determination.

The children who come into conflict with law, or are trafficked internally or externally, or are married at an early age, or are exposed to hazardous labour will all face difficulties as they cannot legally prove their identity and/or age. A similar fate awaits unregistered children claiming their rightful inheritance or facing custody determination by a court of law.

“The government links certain services, such as, admission in schools, issuance of domiciles, proof of citizenship and later CNICs, with birth registration. Therefore, children without legal identity and determination of age are in a highly disadvantageous position,” points out Abbasi.

NADRA’s version and the way forward

The National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) says that it has facilitated registration of such children at a policy level and eased the condition of providing a guardianship certificate.

On a Rs20 affidavit, NADRA says, any supposed name of parentage can be given by the orphanage/guardian so that the same may be entered in the father/mother field. For this NADRA acquired  fatwas from Saudi Arabia and Iran which support the idea of giving any supposed name (which cannot be called a fake name), giving the benefit of doubt that the names cited are indeed of the father/mother or guardian of the child. No birth certificate is required from abandoned or fatherless children for registration with NADRA.

NADRA encourages orphanages to register themselves with the authority. They have so far 31 orphanages that are registered with them, and as per their given record there are 6,045 children residing in these orphanages.

Through these orphanages these children can apply for issuance of CNIC/NICOP/CRC. Recently, NADRA chairman has also ordered the issuance of SMART cards (free of charge) to these children.

The answer, then, may very well lie with policymakers to not just facilitate registration of every Pakistani citizen but also work on sensitisation of masses so that they realise the importance of becoming registered citizens and not unnumbered just shadows lurking in the dark.

*Names changed to protect identities.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 25th, 2013.

http://tribune.com.pk/story/594930/identity-crisis-for-lack-of-a-surname/