Girls as young as 5 are still being sold into marriage in Pakistan.

And no one will stop it.


KHYBER PAKHTUNKHWA, Pakistan — At only 12, Nazia lives in expectation of the worst. As I step through the doorway of the humble compound her parents share with two other families in the Pashtun lands of northwest Pakistan, her small, fragile body trembles unwittingly. She knew I was coming, but learned too young to trust no one.

Nazia was only 5 when her father married her off to a much older man, a stranger, as compensation for a murder her uncle had committed. The decision to give the little girl away as payment, along with two goats and a piece of land, was made by a jirga — an assembly of local elders that makes up the justice system in most of Pakistan’s and Afghanistan’s tribal areas, where conventional courts are either not trusted or nonexistent. “One night a man came and took me by the hand,” Nazia says, in a nearly inaudible moan.

Nazia was too young to understand what was happening when that man dragged her into the darkness. But born in a land where women are not to be seen by strangers, she knew enough to realize something was terribly wrong. “I resisted, I cried, and tried to hold on to the doorjamb,” she remembers.

Nazia was taken to the jirga, displayed as a commodity before the circle of men, and examined by the husband to be, who was allowed to decide whether she was good enough to be his wife. Nazia remembers the men starring at her deep brown eyes, her long, black hair — the humiliation of that scene is so utterly marked in her memory that she can barely finish the sentence before dissolving in tears.

The men in her family argued, unsuccessfully, that she was too young to be married off. In a rare decision, however, the jirga did agree that the girl should not be handed over immediately. So the demanding husband would have to wait — and so has Nazia. Even among the women in the house, she wears a full-length black chador, as if a male intruder could suddenly enter that door again. I ask whether she knows how pretty she is, but that only makes things worse. Nazia is afraid of being beautiful, for that implies being desired by that man.

She is terrified of growing up. Her parents have been able to postpone their daughter’s fate — but not for much longer, certainly no later than age 14. Most child brides are pregnant by then.

There is an aggravating factor in the fate of girls such as Nazia. Given away as compensation to resolve tribal disputes — a custom known as swara in Pashtun — the girls will always represent the enemy for the “dishonored” family, a symbol of their disgrace.

According to tradition, the compensation should end the dispute and bring the two warring families together in harmony. In practice, however, the marriage only provides cover for revenge. Swara girls become the targets of all anger and hatred in their new home. They are often bitten, emotionally tortured, and sometimes raped by other men in the family. They are made to suffer for a crime they did not commit.

The swara custom is a form of collective punishment that persists in the tribal areas. Nazia’s uncle — the perpetrator of the crime for which she is to be punished — killed a neighbor in a land dispute and then ran away. He left no children, so the jirga decided his older brother should pay in his place by sacrificing his own daughter.

Nazia’s father is a poor, uneducated farmer, and he could do nothing to contest this ruling. Having lost his land and livestock in the dispute, he now works in temporary construction jobs, which pay $3 a day. His wife helps by cleaning neighbors’ houses for a few more rupees.

Nazia’s parents have decided this year will be her last year at school. The family has no money to pay for her books, and the expense seemed pointless for them anyway, given that she will soon be married. Nazia herself has lost interest in studying. Since her classmates found out about her fate, she runs back and forth from school, speaking to no one. “They point at me on the streets and call me ‘the swara girl,’ and they make fun of me,” Nazia mumbles. Dogs bark in the distance, making it almost impossible to hear her.

Eventually she blurts out: “That was very painful, and I didn’t understand…. It still hurts and upsets me. I’m so fed up with this feeling! I’m so afraid all the time! I’d rather never leave the house…. People scare me, all people. I trust no one.”

The call for prayer echoes off the mud walls, heralding the day’s end. For security reasons, we have to leave before dusk. As we move away, Nazia remains motionless — head huddled against her chest, eyes on the ground, her pale face immersed in sadness. Every sunset brings her closer to the day that the old man will come and take her away for good.

One girl every three seconds

Despite being illegal, the custom of forcibly marrying girls off to resolve family and tribal disputes happens on an alarming scale across all provinces of Pakistan. It goes by different names — swara in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province (formerly the North-West Frontier Province) and the Federally Administered Tribal Areasvani in Punjab, lajai in Baluchistan, and sang chati in Sindh — but all its forms are equally cruel.

In Pakistan, at least 180 cases of swara were reported last year — every other day — thanks to the work of local journalists and activists. But there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of undocumented cases. Worldwide, an estimated 51 million girls below age 18 are married, according to the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW).

A further 10 million underage girls marry every year — one every three seconds, according to ICRW. The legal age to marry in Pakistan is 18 for boys but 16 for girls, though they can’t drive, vote, or open a bank account until adulthood. According to UNICEF, 70 percent of girls in Pakistan are married before then.

Mohammad Ayub, a British-trained psychiatrist from Lahore, has worked with child soldiers in Sudan and young Taliban recruits in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He now manages the Saidu Sharif Teaching Hospital in the Swat Valley, an area that came under the spotlight when terrorists attempted to kill 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai because of her struggle to promote girls’ education. “I saw small children holding guns bigger than themselves,” he says. “But these girls…. It’s just as tragic.”

Many child brides come to Ayub with severe pain, sometimes blinded or paralyzed — the effects of a psychiatric condition known as “conversion disorder.” Practically unknown in the West since the beginning of the 20th century, it has reached epidemic proportions in the tribal areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan, according to Ayub. It is a sort of psychological stress that manifests in physical ailments, including convulsions, paralysis, or fits.

“Here women don’t have a voice, particularly girls,” Ayub says. “She can’t say, ‘No, I don’t want this marriage’ … so she keeps it all inside, and eventually it will come out in the form of some physical distress. We receive loads of women here, three to four cases with the same symptoms every day only in my clinic, and I mean daily! Thirteen-, 14-year-old girls, all married.”

The average age of swara girls is between 5 and 9 years old, according to registered cases and local accounts. The reason provides an insight into the immense challenge in changing deep-rooted traditions in Pakistan: In the tribal areas, a girl older than this is probably already promised to somebody else.

Mahnun was 8 when a jirga decided she should be given as a swara; her older sister, then 10, had already been promised to a cousin. The stories are disturbingly repetitive: a land dispute, yet another crime, a family seeking revenge, another men-only jirga of powerful local leaders, and an innocent girl’s future taken from her. Mahnun’s case was unusual because her father, both the perpetrator of the crime and a caring parent, would not accept the sentence.

He pleaded with the jirga, offering to give all he owned in exchange for his daughter. Her mother vowed she would not live to see her little girl be taken away by a stranger. “They can behead me, but they won’t take my daughter. I won’t let them to take my daughter,” she screamed when she heard the news. But the offended family said they would only accept the girl, so the jirga consented, recounted Mahnun’s mother.

With no other option available to them, Mahnun’s family gathered up some clothes, whatever utensils they could carry, and escaped in the darkness. They left everything else behind and went into hiding.

The four now live in a single shabby room of a dilapidated compound that they share with other families. They have no electricity. The toilet is a walled-off hole in the ground outside; a few buckets are used to bring water for bathing. Cooking is done in the single pan they brought from home, placed over wood in the courtyard.

Mahnun’s father found a temporary job as a driver, but his contract came to an end and now he is unemployed. “We are borrowing money from others so we can feed the children. We have no choice,” he says. “Nothing matters more to us than our two girls and their lives.”

One window of the room frames the snow-covered mountains in the distance; in the other corner rest heavy blankets, gifts from compassionate neighbors. But Mahnun’s family is still wary of those around them: “In this new village we haven’t told anyone that she is a swara. If people know about this they won’t leave us here alive,” says Mahnun’s mother. Disobeying a jirga’s decision and escaping would be considered an act of betrayal for which the family would not be forgiven.

“Each and every day we live in fear. What if they find us?” says Mahnun’s mother. She accompanies both daughters to school and waits there until they leave. At age 10, Mahnun is in seventh grade and dreams of becoming a judge. “I will ban the custom of swara, and I will put men who do it in jail,” she says hopefully.

“She is getting naughty because she knows she is loved so much,” her father explains, giving Mahnun a warm smile.

No man’s land

Both Nazia’s and Mahnun’s stories pose a fundamental question to Pakistan: Why didn’t the families seek justice in traditional courts in the first place? Part of the answer is tradition — specifically an unwritten, pre-Islamic set of rules that forms a code of honor in Pashtun societies.

Nazia’s father committed no crime, but he did not report his brother, the jirga, or the family that demanded his daughter. In “normal” circumstances, Mahnun’s father, an educated man, could have gone to the courts when his neighbor tried to steal parts of his land. Instead, he killed the man.

“There is something about the Pashtuns to be considered, and that is the burden of honor,” says Fazal Khaliq, a Pakistani journalist and activist who is working to disclose swara cases and denounce the perpetrators. “They kill each other over petty issues for the sake of honor!”

Mahnun’s father was a farmer until a newcomer built a barbed-wire fence inside his property. They argued. A few days later, the man advanced a little further into the land. “I told him so many times…. But he’d keep moving in, few meters at a time,” says Mahnun’s father. He quietly erected heavy cement blocks to mark the boundaries of his 2 acres. The next day, the man removed them.

“But the worst was that the villagers would come and harass me,” he said, his voice shaking. “They said I was not brave enough, insinuated that if I didn’t seek revenge he might even take my wife, and suggested I should bury his body in my land for what he was doing…. So, next time that man invaded my land, I shot him.”

The power of the Pashtun honor code, however, is only part of the story. During the days of the British Empire, the region’s colonial rulers granted titles of nobility to powerful tribal leaders known as maliks in exchange for their loyalty; all local matters were devolved to the jirgas. To counter any rebellion of the wild Pashtuns, the British instituted a set of laws — the Frontier Crimes Regulations — that deprived residents of legal representation in the traditional justice system. At the least sign of rebellion, the British could arrest suspects without trial and sometimes arrested whole tribes.

It was only in 2011 that President Asif Ali Zardari signed amendments to the regulations that now give citizens of the tribal areas the right to appeal decisions made by local political agents. The amendments also prohibit collective punishment and the arrest of children under 16 for crimes committed by others. Despite such reforms, however, little change has been seen on the ground. A century after the set of laws was established, minors continue to be jailed or suffer for the crimes of others, according to human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Flaws in Pakistan’s judicial system also lead residents to rely on the jirgas. “Traditional courts in Pakistan have very bad records. There are unsolved cases going back more than 30 years, still in process, and the whole justice system is seen as highly corrupt,” says Khaliq. “It is also very expensive. Courts charge for each and every service, so the poor can’t afford it, whereas the Islamic courts [jirgas] are free and speedy.”

The rise of Islamic militancy in Pakistan could only make things worse. As extremists grow more powerful, they have started imposing their own draconian rules on society — including even more discrimination against women.

No women’s land

In December 2012, I crossed from Islamabad into the heart of Pashtun lands. In the scenic Swat Valley, where the Pakistani Army now strictly controls journalists’ access, Khaliq and I tried to visit the family of an 8-year-old girl who had just been given away as a swara. Her mother, however, was too afraid to speak. We made other attempts, but Taliban militiamen were still around, locals said, and an informal code of silence remains in force despite the heavy presence of the military.

Once a tourist destination for the Pakistani bourgeoisie and even British monarchs, the Swat Valley was under the sway of a faction of the Pakistani Taliban from 2007 to 2009. Radicalsbombed schools, banned girls’ education, and held public executions.

After an offensive that left thousands dead and caused a massive exodus, the Army eventually regained control of the region. But terrorists continue to carry out attacks, such as the shooting of Malala and the bombing of four schools in the northwestern tribal belt this past February.

In the valley, we hardly saw any women on the streets. The few outside wore burqas and were always accompanied by men. In Mingora, the capital of Swat district, women are only allowed in the markets for a few hours each day, and even then most husbands don’t let their wives go. Those women who can go to the markets buy enough to sell to others in improvised bazaars at home.

During the evenings, as we sat around the fire, the women in the village would describe episodes of violence against them as nighttime fairy tales. The stories were retold to me by one of the men, as none of the women spoke English. Although these men were the perpetrators of the acts being described, they showed no shame in translating them.

City of men

On my way back from Swat, I stopped in Peshawar to meet Samar Minallah, an anthropologist and award-winning filmmaker who has worked with Pashtun women for years.

Peshawar is the nerve center of the tribal belt. It was the headquarters of the Afghan insurgency against the Soviets in the 1980s, and the Taliban rushed back in after the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan. Partnering with local extremist movements, the group has been tightening its gripon the city. In 2012 alone, rockets fell on the local airport, police stations and checkpoints were bombed, vehicles transporting government officials were targeted, and senior public figures were gunned down in daylight. Bombings have continued this year, and sectarian violence in on the rise.

Today, Peshawar is under siege. Vestiges of the old city are now hidden behind sandbags and spirals of barbed wire, while heavily armed soldiers in bulletproof vests guard its ancient, tree-lined avenues. We were stopped three times and interrogated while officers checked the car for bombs. Eventually, they cleared the way ahead toward Edwardes College, which was founded in 1900 by Christian missionaries and has survived in recent years thanks to a heavy security presence.

To my surprise, a teenage female student in a green uniform and white chador came to guide me inside. Up until 2007, Edwardes College did not admit women. Today 305 girls are enrolled alongside more than 2,000 boys. Although still a minority in the classroom, these are the privileged — two-thirds of girls from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are illiterate.

I entered a crowded gymnasium, where about a hundred teenagers, boys and girls, were awaiting a lecture by Minallah about swara.

“Education alone can’t stop violence against women, for there are many educated parliamentarians who sit in the tribal jirgas and they are the ones who decide these little girls should be given…. To stop that we have to change the mindset, and you are the ones who can do it,” Minallah began.

She turned suddenly to the boys: “And especially you.” A loud murmur filled the room; the boys looked confused. “How?” called out one Justin Bieber look-alike. “When you consider this your problem, I assure you that you will also be part of the change,” Minallah answered.

Born to a Pashtun clan in Peshawar, Minallah was lucky to have a liberal, pro-women father. He was a government official and father to three girls and three boys, whom he treated equally. As Minallah told her story to the audience, a boy in the crowd interrupted: “Sorry, but men and women … we are different. Look at us; we are different.”

Minallah didn’t hesitate: “Yes, you are right,” she responded. “We may be different, but we are not unequal in our rights.”

Her statement encouraged the other girls. A 14-year-old girl, only her eyes uncovered by her veil, turned to the boys: “Don’t you realize you are the ones who sit in the jirga? Go, stop talking, and do something!” Even the boys applauded. The girl went on to tell the audience about her daily struggle to come to school, defying her father’s and brothers’ will.

“These are very brave girls,” Minallah murmured to me. “Just attending school and wearing uniform in the streets is very dangerous for them.”

Minallah only learned about swara in 2003, when she traveled to the scenic village of Matta, at the top of the Swat Valley’s mountain range. There, she met a mother about to give her 11-year-old away in a forced marriage. “That really hit me,” Minallah said. “I just felt very angry and ashamed that such things were happening in Pakistan and we didn’t know about them because they happen in the tribal areas.”

So she became determined that Pakistan should know everything. Minallah’s first award-winning documentary, “Swara: A Bridge Over Troubled Water,” portrayed the mother and daughter from Matta. The film made its way to the highest echelons of the political system: In 2004, the Pakistani parliament passed an amendment to Pakistan’s penal code making swara a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Since then, around 60 decisions made by jirgas involving swara girls have been prevented by local courts, though in most tribal areas the law still does not apply.

Minallah relies on a network of local journalists and activists, like Khaliq, to inform her about swara cases. She also depends on a few local policemen to block upcoming cases.

Abid Ali was one of the few whom Minallah trusted. “When I was informed about a jirga involving swara, I’d just give him a call and he would come!” she says.

Ali, a police officer from Lahore who was married to a Pashtun woman, became known for his bravery in fighting for girls’ rights in areas other officials refused to go. He received threats for interfering in swara cases. One night in 2006, he was driving on the Peshawar-Kohat highway when he was shot dead. His murderer was never brought to justice.

Ali’s last post was in Mardan, on the outskirts of Peshawar Valley. Naturally irrigated by the Swat River’s many tributaries, Mardan is a highly fertile agricultural area. Land disputes are frequent — and so is swara.

Rafaqat, a tiny woman with sun-cracked skin, has dedicated her life to eliminating swara in the area. “I’m an old lady. If they kill me, so what? I’ll die eventually,” she says, laughing loudly.

In 1998, Rafaqat’s teenage nephew fell for a girl already promised to somebody else. He knew his love was prohibited, so he ran away with the girl. To compensate the family’s loss, the jirga decided the boy’s younger sister, Rafaqat’s niece, should be given away as a swara. She was 11.

Rafaqat never saw her again. She managed to stay informed about the niece’s movements, so she knew when the girl became pregnant. When the time came, her new family refused to take her to the hospital. At age 14, the swara girl gave birth to a son, but died in labor. “They never came to her funeral. They never paid condolences to our family,” Rafaqat tells me. “All they said was: We had our badal [revenge].”

As an old woman, Rafaqat can walk freely on the streets, her torn veil barely covering her long, gray hair. Well known in the village, mothers secretly contact her to report about swara cases. When she gets a call, she immediately brings in Minallah.

In one such case, Minallah reached the jirga before it had begun. Appropriately veiled, she stepped into the circle of men holding a copy of the Quran. “I am sure you know that the Quran says it is anti-Islamic to give girls as compensation,” she lectured them.

One hour and a half later, the jirga announced it would not take the girl. “That was such a happy day for me! Some tribal elders, they don’t know…. They are illiterate,” Minallah says. “If you tell them and if they see people are being jailed for that, they think again.”

We are edging along between the cracked concrete walls and rusty iron doors of Mardan’s narrow streets when the driver stops abruptly. Lying in the middle of a road of petrified mud is a baby girl, so young she cannot even crawl, dressed in ragged clothes. Her eyes widened with the proximity of the vehicle — her eyelids blackened with kohl.

Minallah and Rafaqat rush to pick up the baby. We spot a woman in the distance, hair covered, only her eyes visible as she stands in the doorway. Laughing nervously, she says she is the baby’s mother. Her older children took their little sister to play outside, but left her behind. The mother could not set foot outside the house without her husband’s permission and he was not at home, so she has been standing there, waiting for someone to come and rescue her baby daughter.

We leave Rafaqat at home and head back to Islamabad. Nowshera Mardan Road is packed with traditional, colorful Pakistani trucks, while a few women walk in monochrome burqas on the roadside; others wear full chador. I find it curious that some have red stains on the fabric. “They represent the blood of women in their families killed in honor killing. A silent protest,” Minallah explains.

Mardan may be known as the city of brave men, but it’s also a place of courageous women. I ask whether Minallah has received any threats: “Oh, so many!” she replies.

Minutes later, Minallah picks up a call. The line is cutting out, but she can hear enough to understand that a Pakistani expat is calling from Prague to inform her about a jirga due to meet in his home village in a few days, to decide about swara girls.

Another case for Minallah to fight. “It’s still a tradition,” she says, “but I think people are starting to realize it’s nothing but a crime.”


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