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Break taboos and engage men: key steps to end child marriage in Pakistan

Qamar Naseem has worked for years to protect and advocate for the rights of girls and women in Pakistan, engaging with both men and women to dissuade them from marrying off their daughters early. 

Qamar Naseem was born into a conservative family in rural Pakistan. Seeing his mother and sisters denied opportunity inspired him to take up the cause for women. In 1999, he co-founded a group called Blue Veins to raise awareness on breast cancer. But working in rural Pakistan, this was not so straightforward.

“In Pakistan, or in a conservative Muslim society, anything related to sexuality and women is always very controversial. People couldn’t understand why we were talking about this,” Qamar explains. “We were advocating self-examination and clinical examinations. It was quite new for the community.”

The campaign met with much resistance from people within the community, who disapproved of discussing what they saw as women’s sexuality so openly in public. This taboo was so entrenched in society that even a doctor referred to the Blue Veins as ‘a group obsessed with the breast.’

Speaking about breast care so publicly left the staff and volunteers at risk of physical attack and Blue Veins was threatened to stop all activities. Women in the community were also negatively affected, as their husbands withheld permission for them to go to the doctor. “We faced a lot of resistance,” explains Qamar. “We learned that women are not allowed make decisions about their own bodies.”

The problem was much deeper than a medical concern; how can women be empowered in a society where discrimination against women is commonplace? If women cannot make a decision about their own bodies, Qamar reasoned, how can they make decisions in their communities or families?

Empowering communities: working with men and women

Undeterred by threats, Qamar tried to identify what might reduce the community’s hostility. He discovered that although programmes aimed to educate and empower women, programmes rarely sought to educate men as well.

By excluding men, programmes fail to create an atmosphere in which change—especially on sensitive issues—can be nurtured. The realisation that including men is vital to a programme’s success prompted Blue Veins to evolve into a women’s empowerment project working with both women and men to bring about much needed changes in the community.

By excluding men, programmes fail to create an atmosphere in which change—especially on sensitive issues—can be nurtured.

Qamar Naseem

There were countless ways to involve men, from sending imams to training sessions, to speaking to individuals at the hurja (local community gatherings). They also organised community support groups, bringing men and women together to speak about issues that they face in the community. These groups became a forum to talk about everything from rights and domestic violence to providing for children and the importance of delaying marriage for their daughters. Soon their success spread across 2 provinces, and to date 309 community support groups have been established.

“We empower communities to help themselves, especially by involving men,” says Qamar. “I believe it will take time for women to take the lead or even become equal. In Pakistan we often make this mistake and fail to work with men. It keeps us from making an impact in people’s lives and we put more women at risk.”

Rebuilding schools and taking a stand for girls’ education

Addressing taboo issues exposed Qamar and his colleagues to danger. In KP and FATA provinces, Qamar estimates 80% of the region is controlled by Islamic militants. Their ultraconservative view that girls should only receive a basic Islamic education—if any at all—meant that girls’ schools became the target of attacks.

But where the militants bombed, Qamar and Blue Veins brought the community together to rebuild, and provide chairs, toilet facilities, books and other materials needed to ensure girls would enrol and stay in school. In Qamar’s view, schooling for girls provides an important alternative to parents considering marrying off their daughters and when they are destroyed, he is determined to see them re-built.

“In KP and FATA [provinces] there is resistance to girls’ education. Even today, 3 schools have been bombed. Most of them are turned into seminaries or religious schools for boys. When we are rebuilding girls’ schools, we are directly challenging the militants.”

Humanitarian emergency through the eyes of women

When floods devastated large areas of Pakistan in 2010, Qamar urged the government to take women’s concerns into consideration. Qamar noticed that the floods effected men and women differently, and pushed the government to establish a women’s desk to respond to the specific needs of women in disaster relief situations.

There are countless examples, from the most basic, that sanitary napkins were not included in hygiene kits distributed to women, to the biggest oversights, such as lacking reproductive health facilities, contraceptives and women’s representation in camp management, leading to further neglect of women’s issues.

Insecurity in the camps also prompted an increase in child marriages, as concerned parents felt marriage would protect their daughters from harassment and violence. Qamar urged those running the camp to appoint female managers to monitor such issues. Thanks to Qamar’s efforts, the government has since committed to take a gendered-approach in all future disaster relief.

Change from within: Standing the test of time

Qamar believes strongly in giving communities the tools and advice they need to bring about their own change. People living in a community know their problems better than anyone else, but they must start by acknowledging concerns of both men and women.

By helping them break taboos, Qamar sets open and inclusive dialogue as the starting point for community discussions on important and difficult issues. A focus on gender helps communities to value the girl child and to foster an atmosphere in which child marriage cannot thrive.

Yet after 18 years of working to improve conditions for women in his community, Qamar still thinks there is much to do. “I am not satisfied at all from our work, but when I see the change that I brought about in my house or in my family, that means a lot to me.”

“My mother was beaten by my grandfather because she wanted to go to school. When I see my sisters going out by themselves, or getting ready to go to university, it gives me a good feeling. It inspires me that if it can happen within my family, which was very conservative, then it is possible that change can happen in every family in Pakistan.”

Make sure Qamar and activists like him get the recognition they deserve and cast your vote for the Guardian International Achievement Development Award before 7 October 2012.

Read more about the current situation in Pakistan, as activists urge the government to take steps against child marriage.

The government of KP province has recently announced a new scheme to effectively enforce the minimum age of marriage.