A 21st century vision for our nation’s girls

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Time to sound the alarm

 

 

 

Pakistan defiantly stood at number three on a list of World’s Most Dangerous Countries for Women –right after Afghanistan and Congo – as recently as 2011, according to a Thomson Reuters Foundation Expert Poll.

Excuses dressed as reasons abound. Surrounding them is a full barrage of threats, ranging from child marriages, violence, rape, dismal health care and honour killings.

A 2013 Global Gender Gap Index by World Economic Forum plotted Pakistan as the world’s second-worst country in terms of gender inequality and the equitable division of resources and opportunities between genders. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that in 2015, 14,850 kidnapping cases involving women, girls and children were reported in Punjab province alone. Some 2,000 women were kidnapped, with 80 per cent of them allegedly raped; and 15 per cent killed.

And what became of the 980 minors who were kidnapped?

Surprising? No. Alarming? For sure.

There is little surprise because incidents of torture against women increased by 20 per cent from the previous year, according to the Punjab Gender Parity Report 2016;of 6,505 women subjected, 173 were killed in the name of “honour.”

Parents in this part of the world tend to marry off their “kids” at early ages. Even so, this cannot be accepted as a valid excuse for mistreatment of so many of our great nation’s daughters.

According to a 2014 UNICEF report, three per cent of Pakistani girls are married before reaching age of 15; 21 per cent before age 18.

This is not meant to brand parents as “criminals” in as much as it is the state’s “criminal negligence” to carry out its obligation. The main psychological reason behind this unlawful act is lawlessness itself.

It is the state’s responsibility to provide protection and justice for these minors. Adding fuel to this out-of-control fire are instances of sexual violence, non-sexual violence, cultural and religious factors, human trafficking and the lack of access to sufficient resources.

It’s no surprise to know that within our culture child marriages can have a much darker side.

In dreadful situations, customs known as “Vani” in Punjab and “Swara” in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Tribal Areas, “Dand” or “Bada” in Sindh and Balochistan. A family offers its girl – or girls – to an aggrieved family in a bid to settle a dispute or blood feud. These married girls live a horrible life; they are treated as little more than children of the “enemy.”

Here, especially, the state has badly and negligently failed to counter this dated practice and protect these children. In fact, it seems that the state has allowed this criminal tradition from prehistoric times to continue well into the 21st century. It does so even though the constitution of Pakistan carries a Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929. Such forced unions also are covered by section 310-A of Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) 1860. Those facilitating such arrangements may be imprisoned for as long as seven years but no fewer than three years. And they are subject to a fine of Rs500,000.

Pakistan’s chauvinistic society unashamedly dares to marry some of the girls with the Holy Quran, depriving her of a basic right to marriage.

It has not been surprising to note that our Islamic Republic’s religious scholars and clerics have been mum on this subject. At the same time, they are quite vocal about other issues. No religious political party has yet distanced itself from this barbaric act even though there is not a single instance within Islam that would have ever allowed such shameful events to be inflicted upon a child.

A fair question to ponder is this: Who then will speak on behalf of these unwitting girls?

It is ridiculous that such a great Islamic nation – one quite capable of inspiring the world with its deeds and actions – should need a law (Section 498-C of the PPC prohibits marriage with the Holy Quran) to eliminate such inhumane acts. Our law compels any person found guilty of arranging, facilitating or compelling the marriage of a female to be imprisoned for up to seven years –but no fewer than three years – with a fine of up to Rs500,000.

Once again, the problem here is not with the law, it is with the lawlessness.

The failure to enforce meaningful accountability rests solely on the state’s broad shoulders. It is sheer hypocrisy to enact such laws and then present such a soft face to the international community. The tragic occurrence and acceptance of these crimes, embarrassingly propels Pakistan to the top of list of countries with fragile human-rights conditions.

A similar tradition being practiced widely here is “Watta Satta.” In such a marriage, families trade for brides. Families exchange their daughter and son with another family. And in the case of any family dispute – on either side – the daughters are unceremoniously divorced to enact revenge. Hence, the entire burden of these disputes that otherwise should be litigated in a civil society still falls squarely on the females of these families. And a divorce between one of the couples may trigger a divorce between the other couple because of strong sibling ties. Shamefully, such marriages are not even considered to be a crime; that is breached only if a child marriage is part of the arrangement.

Section 498-B of the PPC prohibits such forced marriages and the punishment is the same as that prohibiting marriage with the Holy Quran.

I have witnessed many students studying in grades VIII and IX being forced into marriage because it is the will of their parents.

How can it be surprising to realise that the costs are great?

Such marriages produce disturbing trend lines. They have been a major cause of girls’ illiteracy or acceptance of a lower level of education. They damage the girls’ physical, mental and social health, which often lead to serious health issues. Prenatal, neonatal, and maternal health problems are clearly tied to girls who are married before age 18.

Child marriages are widely prevalent among cultivators and labourers. So, dependency on elders and a lack of independent occupational aspirations or occupational mobility hampers any efforts to limit child marriages. So, child marriages, particularly in the rural areas of Pakistan, continue to take place.

Yet, distinct trends are beginning to develop within villages.

While the practice remains concentrated among the landless farmers and labourers, exposure to urban areas, thankfully, has helped reduce the rate of child marriage. And enlightened big farmers seem to be shunning the practice, albeit gradually. There also are pockets where realisation and understanding of the negative effects being inflicted upon these children is changing behaviours.

The Punjab Assembly passed the Protection of Women Against Violence Bill 2016 in February. It criminalises all forms of violence against women, suggests sufficient punishments for males who are involved and would add GPS tracking ribbon to violent males. But soon after passage, the law landed on the doors of Federal Shariat Court where Muhammad Aslam Khaki, the complainant and Supreme Court lawyer and renowned professor of Islamic law, is seeking to have some sections declared repugnant to Islam, the Holy Quran and Sunnah.

Lack of implementation is another major impediment in protecting these vulnerable and valuable children. Our beloved state must do what is right, what is just, what is honourable when it comes to educating, protecting and encouraging the daughters of Pakistan.

Women must not only be allowed – but encouraged – to ascend.

The representation of women in the government offices between grade 18 and 22 posts continues to disappoint. Around 13.5 per cent of women are working at grade 18, 5.5 per cent at grade 19 and 10 per cent at grade 20. There is just one at grade 21, and not a single woman is working at a grade-22 position. In the Punjab Prosecution Department, just 96 of 1,023 prosecutors are women, and there are just three women police stations in the province, according to the report. The literacy rate among men in the province is 70 per cent; among women it is 50 per cent.

Such inequity here – and on a larger scale – must change dramatically, along with the Stone Age practice of child marriages that insults, demeans and devalues nearly half of our population.

Just recently, an Oscar Award has been conferred upon Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, a proud daughter of this nation whose documentaries are known for their roasting look at sensitive matters like Afghan refugee children, child marriages and acid burn victims.

If you take a moment to gaze into the eyes of girls – and their mothers – you will realise that our daughters deserve the opportunity to seek out the best and brightest future that a 21st-century Pakistan has to offer.

There should be no more surprises. It is time to sound the alarm!