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Children are the angels of the earth. We must do more to protect them

Photo credit: Peace Foundation

Muhammad Aslam of the Peace Foundation works to end child marriage in rural Pakistan. He writes of the challenges he faces in persuading communities to end a long-held social custom and argues that rural communities need to be given much more support.

“Children are the angels of the earth”, we say in Pakistan. “Children are the blessing of God”.

Yet in spite of this great respect we have for our children, early marriage is common in our society, especially in rural or desert communities. A key reason is poverty. Recently we heard about a girl of 10 years old who was married to her 32 year old cousin because her family was not ready to lose a five hectare piece of land. By arranging a marriage for their daughter, they saved their land.

But as we know, child marriage helps the vicious cycle of poverty to continue. The earlier a girl drops out of school, the less likely she is to earn an income and ease the poverty in which she and her family live. She is also less likely to learn about sexual and reproductive health, with serious consequences for her own wellbeing. Too many communities in Pakistan lack a school as in rural areas many have been forced to close. And private schools are too expensive for most local people.

Yet poverty isn’t the only obstacle we face in our attempt to prevent early marriage. In most rural communities in Pakistan, child marriage is not seen as a violation of a child’s rights. A child is believed to be the property of their father and it is up to him to decide what is best for his child. This a widely accepted point of view and there simply isn’t much interest in stopping child marriage.

There are also the constraints that long-held customs and beliefs put on our work. Some believe, for instance, that a girl who has reached puberty must be married before her father can go on Hajj or Umrah, the great Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca that all Muslims are obliged to perform at least once in their life.

As a result, many devout families are keen to marry off their daughters at an early age.

And I must tell you about the practice of ‘swara’, too. In Pakistan, some communities revert to ancient tribal codes and practices to seek justice. If, for example, there are allegations that a brother or father has committed a sin, the family may be obliged to give their young sister or daughter in compensation to the aggrieved party, a common method of settling feuds.

How can we persuade communities that don’t see child marriage as a problem?

I am glad to see that prosperous and literate people in the cities are discussing child marriage, and the media is starting to talk about it too. But how can we change attitudes in communities where child marriage isn’t seen as a problem. “Who are you to tell us what to do?” they tell us.

At the Peace Foundation, we’ve tried to link child marriage with other, more tangible issues that are easier for local people to see have an impact on their lives. For example, in rural Pakistan Hepatatis B and C are on the rise. The number of people who directly experience the disease or see for themselves its harmful effects is increasing by the day.

That’s why we decided to organise community dialogues to inform local people about these diseases. We have a mobile team that moves from village to village to emphasise that when young girls marry older men, they don’t know about family planning and are unable to protect their bodies from illness. We also use the opportunity to discuss the damage that early pregnancy can cause for girls who marry very young.

Levels of literacy are low, so we publish stickers and we use picture presentations, CDs and case studies to share the stories of child brides and their families. We’ve found that these presentations are interesting for the community and that they help to sensitise people that they must respect the health and sexuality of their child rather than see her as property that they own. Their reactions are positive but I must admit that when it comes to marrying their own daughter, it is a different story.

With no-one to support them, it’s little wonder that rural communities rely on their long-held social customs.

We have also found that newsletters, newspaper clippings, photos and SMS messages are an effective means of showing those in urban areas or in positions of influence what is really happening at the community level. They must be reminded that we need to support rural communities and provide them with the opportunities to lift themselves out of the poverty that does so much to perpetuate child marriage.

Rural communities need much more support. They need more schools, they need quality education and they desperately need employment opportunities. If these were available, they might come to change their situation themselves. At the moment, with no-one else to support them, they have only their social customs and religious obligations to rely on. We need to give them more.

The legal system too, requires change. If you break the law by marrying a girl who is under the legal age of marriage, you only pay a small fine of 1000 rupees (about 12 US dollars) and/or receive a short prison sentence. This is not a strong enough deterrent; the marriage remains legal and the husband, if punished at all, is free to return from his brief time in prison to his child bride. For those of us who work at the grassroots, we would be much strengthened knowing that the government had effective laws in place to dissuade people from early marriage.

I’m determined. Wherever you face a challenge, it can be overcome.

I believe that we must work hard to change attitudes towards child marriage, because if we don’t, the number of child brides in our country will only escalate. After all, when people are married at 11, it is likely that they too will marry their children off at the same age.

I’m sometimes asked why I haven’t lost hope. Attitudes in favour of child marriage are so strong, people tell me, how can you change them? I’m a determined person, I reply, wherever you have a challenge you have to work at it. Being part of Girls Not Brides is a source of strength to me- knowing that there are others out there working hard in their communities to end child marriage and who believe like I do that there’s a lot to hope for.