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Safe PLaCES help flood-affected children and women prevent child marriage in Pakistan

A new type of UNICEF integrated emergency facility is providing protection and assistance to tens of thousands of flood-displaced children and women in Pakistan.

These spaces, known as ‘Protective Learning and Community Emergency Services’ (PLaCES), offer child protection, education, recreation and community-engagement activities, and are also raising awareness about the protection needs of children and women, including the need to be protected from early and forced marriage.

Some 258 PLaCES have been set up in flood-affected areas of Sindh Province, which was hit by exceptionally heavy monsoon rains in August and September of this year.  The tents and tarpaulin structures have been erected near temporary settlements and in villages of return, reaching more than 52,000 children and nearly 16,000 women – and there are plans to expand services even further.

Increased vulnerability

Up to 4.8 million people, half of them children, were affected by the floods in Sindh Province alone. There was widespread damage to homes, communities and essential infrastructure, including health centres and schools. The disaster has greatly increased the vulnerability of children and women, not only to flood-related disease and malnutrition, but also to exploitation and violence.

Girls in flood-affected districts face the very real risk that their families will force them to marry while they are still children. Child marriage remains common in Pakistan – nearly a quarter of girls are married before age 18 – and some families see child marriage as a reasonable response to the economic and psychological stresses of flood-related displacement and loss of livelihood, and a way to reduce the future burden on the family.

PLaCES give children and women an opportunity to learn about the long-term consequences of child marriage on female children, such as health risks associated with maternal mortality and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. Repeated pregnancies can cause complications and malnutrition in both young mothers and their children, and child brides are more likely to be victims of domestic violence, sexual abuse and psychological trauma.

 “I was just a little girl”

Girls and women also discussed their own experiences with child marriage. During a PLaCES session at Mubarak Ghambir Village, Badin District, 17-year-old Salma Altaf Hussein shared her story.

“I got married very young. I was just a little girl and did not know what marriage was,” said Salma, who now has three children. “I wanted to play and go to school but did not have a chance to learn anything.

“Now we have learned that child marriage is dangerous.  I want my children to go to school and become somebody before they get married,” she said.

Learning to protect children

Shahida Abdul Aziz, a PLaCES coordinator, has held sessions for more than 140 women in Mubarak Ghambir alone. Ms. Aziz said that child marriage has affected many women.

“The problem with early marriages is that the bride is a child herself,” she said. “If she gets pregnant, she is usually underweight and under-nourished and suffers many complications. In most cases the babies also suffer health risks.”

“If a girl is married off at an age when she herself should be playing with dolls, how will she be capable of handling a baby or going through a delivery?” said Shahida.

Shama Ishaq, 16, knows this first-hand. She was married when she was just 12 years old. “I wanted to study, but my mother did not allow me to. My father had already died, so she gave me away to my husband”, she said.

Shama was very young when she gave birth to the first of her four children. “My children are always sick. One of my daughters died, and I have been sick since my last daughter was born,” she said, her eyes glistening with tears.

“Life is hard, but it is good to have a place like this where we can share our problems with others and learn more about how we can protect our children, especially girls, from early marriages,” said Shama.

Building capacity

Apart from reaching women and children through PLaCES, UNICEF is working in partnership with the Sindh Social Welfare Department to increase response to child protection issues, including child marriage. UNICEF is also supporting the coordination of child protection efforts and programmes to address gender-based violence. These efforts are helping promote community awareness of these issues and are building the capacity of services and government institutions to protect children and to promote their rights to safe and healthy development.