The life altering consequences of early marriages for girls and the hurdles overcome by one survivor to start a new life.
Razia* is a nineteen years old young woman who lives in Thatta. Her parents are financially disadvantaged, and have always struggled to make ends meet for themselves and their thirteen children: seven sons and six daughters. The years of struggling to make ends meet prompted Razia’s parents to force her out of school at an early age and marry her when she was only twelve.
"Give and take": the practice of watta satta in Pakistan
In Razia’s village, like similar villages across Pakistan, the archaic and unjust custom – known as “watta satta” in the local language – is still prevalent. Loosely translated it means “give and take”, and entails two siblings (brother and sister) marrying into another family. In Razia’s case, the family of the girl that her brother wished to marry asked for Razia’s hand in marriage for their son. Razia’s parents jumped at the chance and readily accepted the proposal without pausing to ask Razia what she wanted.
At the time Razia was studying in the third grade, and had just crossed over into puberty. When she found out about the plans that her family had made for her without asking her, her surprise quickly turned into dismay. She had always considered marriage inevitable, not imminent. She did not know the person she was to be married to.
Things moved quickly from here on, not long after the decision was made, her family made the arrangements and her friends helped a bewildered Razia with her makeup on the day of the wedding. When Razia reached her husband’s home after the wedding she cried and begged him and his family to let her return to her parents’ home. But her pleas fell on deaf years; her tears were met with reproaches and anger, instead of sympathy.
Poverty and ill health
Married life was a hard road for Razia. Her husband’s family was very poor and had a hard time making ends meet. According to Razia: “My husband was a waiter in a local hotel from which we were provided meals three days of the week. The remaining days were usually spent in hunger.” To contribute to the household income she picked cotton in a nearby field – hard work for a mere Rs. 30 (US$ 0.3) per day. Any money she earned, Razia handed over to her husband.
The Razia who studied in the 3rd grade and played with her friends during recess could never have imagined the tough times she would face a few months down the road. Soon she found herself with child, and because of poverty she had limited access to proper nutrition to carry her through her pregnancy.
Like the rest of the household Razia was expected to work hard, and to contribute to the earnings. The hard work which included carrying heavy loads took its toll on her health and the health of her unborn child. The consequences manifested themselves in the form of a premature birth of an infant suffering from malnutrition that died soon after birth. Razia also developed a cyst in her uterus because of complications.
Razia’s troubles did not end here: one day, on his way to the city to buy supplies, her husband was shot and killed by robbers who also stole his motor bike. After his death the relations between Razia and her in-laws deteriorated to an extent where she was forced to leave her husband’s house and to move back in her parents’ home.
Supporting married girls with sexual & reproductive health services
Around the same time Plan Pakistan initiated a project titled Reproductive Health Information to Adolescents (RHIA) which aims at providing information on sexual and reproductive health information services to young people in rural areas of the country. The most basic component – and probably its most attractive feature – is Adolescent Friendly Centres (AFCs).
These centres have been established in communities that not only provide adolescent girls and boys with information regarding sexual and reproductive health, but also give them a platform for healthy recreational activities. Services offered to young people include educational sessions on sexual & reproductive health and life skills, recreational activities, and counseling facilities, and linkages and referral systems.
Hearing her story, a representative of a Plan partner organisation met with Razia, and found a depressed and lonely girl, and after listening to her story, Razia was invited to take part in especially arranged counseling sessions. Subsequently, Razia became a regular face at the local AFC where she got the chance to interact with other young people, share her story with them and learn more about their struggles.
She also applied for, and was given, a job as a caregiver in the local Early Childhood Care and Development (ECCD) centre. Says Razia: “I felt that not only was this a turning point in my life, but one of my happiest moments as well, as for the first time in my life I felt a sense of independence”.
Soon the smile that she had lost years ago returned to Razia’s face. Razia now works with children at the ECCD centre in the morning and visits the AFC after work. Her evenings are spent studying, to pick up from where she left when she was pulled out of school. A much more confident Razia says: “I am very happy and busy in my new life and my troubles seem like a distant memory. Because I am independent, I don’t need any one’s support!”
*Real name changed to protect identity
In the time it has taken to read this article 57 girls under the age of 18 have been married
Each year, 12 million girls are married before the age of 18
That is 23 girls every minute
Nearly 1 every 3 seconds