No More Child Brides

No More Child Brides

Publication info

Sumaira Khalid, CARE Pakistan

What does a wedding day look like to a five year old, especially if it is her wedding day?

Ameena was visibly trembling with fear. Her face had lost its color and she couldn’t hear or comprehend what was going on. The hordes of people gathering around her and their excited chatter was pushing her into an abyss where she could only hear her heart beating wildly. It was her wedding day.

“Teju, why are you here?” The question coming from a man of Ameena’s family rendered me speechless at first.

I was standing in Ameena’s one-room, mud-walled house with the men of her family. The air, thick with humidity, excitement and nervous anxiety, was becoming difficult to breathe. I can’t say I was any less terrified than little Ameena. She stood in line of being sacrificed to the generations-old tradition of being given in marriage to a boy double or even three times her age. I, on the other hand, stood defiantly in the path of this tradition being reinforced today. If you ask anyone from the village who has been a witness to the account of events in my family life, you’d be sure to get a surprised reaction.

I had seen it all happen before. Silently.

The look Ameena had in her eyes was exactly the same as my own little girl when she was that age and was being given in marriage to a boy double her age.

I couldn’t stop my daughter from being given away like that, so how come I found the courage to do it now, after 25 years? I am not an educated, urban woman. I have never even set foot inside a school. But life teaches you what a classroom doesn’t.

My daughter, Jhoomri, was five years old when my family ran into financial troubles. In order to get quick money, my husband announced that he would give our daughter away to the one who could pay off his financial needs. Since the tradition of early marriages is quite common in our culture, no one really saw any harm in it. We had all become accustomed to being bound in these traditions and never felt the need to think otherwise.

When Jhoomri was being given in marriage, my maternal instincts urged me to stop it from happening – but in a land where men are seated on charpoys[1] and women sit on the floor by their feet, how much space do you think we get to voice a distinct opinion?

So Jhoomri got married. At an age when she didn’t even know the difference between getting married and not getting married, at an age when she couldn’t even articulate a question asking about such a difference, at an age when she should only have been concerned with playing. After the ceremony her parents-in-law left her with us, saying she was far too young to help around with the house chores so they would come back for her when she was of a suitable age.

That day never came.

My daughter, as she grew into adolescence, would be teased by her friends about her “husband” and the poor thing would blush and get dreamy-eyed. As she grew older, these playful questions morphed into full blown taunts of why she was left “unwanted” like a ragged doll, how come her husband or his family who had promised to come back and take her away never even saw her again? By now, her father, the person entrusted by God to take care of her and treat her as a blessing, the same person who had emotionally crippled her forever was dead. I was left to become a silent spectator to Jhoomri’s misery. I could have stopped those morbid thoughts from paralyzing her slowly but I didn’t. I was the product of these traditions and was at that point numb to react.

I took up my late husband’s job on working in the fields of a big village landlord and soon enlisted my other children to work on the fields too. A large number of the village community is dependent on their income from working on the fields of some big land lord. This is the distinction that defines our life and existence -the landless and the land owners. Landless masses work on the fields of the few land owners. The land owners are wealthy, send their kids abroad for vacation, have mansions in the big city of Karachi and cherish their daughters. The landless are in debt, can’t send their children to school and end up marrying their daughters early for money.

My youngest daughter has begun to attract suitors to the door too. The two boys are also married. But all these developments, considered as moments of joy in one’s life, have failed to bring up my spirits. All I can see is Jhoomri and how her life, her happiness, has slipped away from her hands. Slowly she has descended into a state of denial that has impaired all her cognitive abilities. It has been 25 years since she was labeled the child bride, and today she has been labeled as a demented person.

Sometimes I feel I might never have found the courage or the words to describe my daughter’s distress had it not been for the CARE gender and human rights training in which I participated. For the past year and a half, I have been working in a five-member road maintenance team formed under CARE’s Community Infrastructure Improvement Project. This project has enlisted hundreds of other destitute women like me. I have even heard that this project is spread across dozens of villages in nine districts across the country.

Working on maintaining the earthen roads with the road maintenance team also earns me good money every two weeks. The project has a few trainings that are mandatory for us to attend. At first, I had thought it will just be a bunch of women sitting together and talking – so no harm in attending – but I never expected to come out revisiting so many events in my life and how my instincts on women and children rights had been so accurate.

Realizing that my own disposition had been corroborated by the lessons of the gender and human rights training, I took the brave step to Ameena’s door the day I heard the commotion in the village. As I took one stride after the other, my resolve became more and more strengthened. When I talked to the men of her family, the supreme decision-makers of her life, I felt my hands shake and my knees tremble.

I glanced in Ameena’s direction. Those fearful eyes reminded me of the agony Jhoomri has lived through the past 25 years. With renewed valor, I fought for Ameena’s rights. Standing in that small mud-walled courtyard I championed the cause of women’s rights, how we are as important for a community as men, how our lives are as meaningful as a those of men, how by making such decisions based on complete ignorance of civilized cultures, religious knowledge and common sense, we ruin a girl’s life forever.

The example of my poor daughter’s life is a lesson for the decision makers of any girl’s future. What has my daughter earned in the last two decades except shame and guilt? All of that is ill placed. The burden of bearing her miseries should be on the shoulders of those who, 25 years ago, rejoiced in that ill-fated ceremony. But she is the only one who continues to suffer. No one else but her can feel the pain of being rejected and left to wonder about her inferiority.

Honestly, I never believed I could make those men part from their decision to marry Ameena off. Perhaps I never realized my own strength to defend someone. It wasn’t me who prevented Ameena from being sacrificed like a lamb, it was Jhoomri’s resilience. It was all her strength that channeled out of me that day.

When I tell Jhoomri now that she saved someone’s life, that she has become the symbol of bravery and resilience for all girls, she just looks up at me and smiles that innocent smile of hers. Other women from the village tell me I’m just being silly. They say she doesn’t have a clue what I’m telling her. She’s gone too far along in her demented state of mind.

But I don’t agree.

Jhoomri understands very well what she has accomplished. Her smile tells me she knows.

 [1] A bedstead of woven webbing, usually made from jute, stretched on a wooden frame on four legs. It is commonly used to sit and sleep on.