Solidarity in the face of hostility: civil society and the media work together to end child marriage in Pakistan
Mashooque Birhamani is the Chief Executive Office of Sujag Sansar Organization (SSO). In this blog, he explains how working in partnership with journalists can boost efforts to tackle child marriage in Pakistan.
I knew a journalist once, whose determination to report human rights abuses against women and girls cost him his life. His name was Ghulam Rasool Birhamani.
Three years ago, he reported the child marriage of a 12-year-old girl to a 22-year-old man from a local tribe in Sindh, Pakistan. Despite death threats, he followed up constantly, asking that the perpetrators be brought to justice for forcing a little girl into marriage.
He was attacked, beaten and killed a few days after.
ANTI-CHILD MARRIAGE ACTIVISTS FACE A CLIMATE OF HOSTILITY
In Pakistan, 24% of girls marry before they turn 18. However this figure is challenged by activists who claim the ratio might be higher.
The province of Sindh, where Sujag Sansar (SSO) operates, is one of the most affected regions in the country with 33% of girls forced into marriage, usually to much older men.
The numbers are even higher in rural and remote areas like Dadu District, where Ghulam Rasool worked. It’s in those marginalised areas that grassroots organisations like ours work to challenge deeply rooted views of women and girls.
In rural Pakistan, child marriage is strongly associated with culture and custom. Those who question practices such as vani or swara, where girls are given away in marriage to settle disputes, regularly face anger from tribal authorities.
Anti-child marriage activists are often threatened, accused of interfering with family issues or violating the honour of a tribe, and journalists like Ghulam Rasool face the same hostility too.
SUPPORTING JOURNALISTS TO HIGHLIGHT CHILD MARRIAGE
That’s why it is crucial for civil society to work together with local journalists.
After all, the media plays such an important role in reporting cases of human rights violations. They can talk about it in the press, on the internet; they can convince people on a larger scale than we can.
Though most journalists know little about child marriage, they are eager to learn. So we invite them to workshops to discuss how they can get involved. We hand out factsheets with information on the scope of child marriage, locally and globally, and its consequences for girls’ development.
Many of them don’t know that child marriage happens so often and in so many countries. Once they understand its repercussions, they feel empowered to take action.
Our trainings attract many journalists. You see many journalists in Pakistan, particularly in the regions, work on a voluntary basis: they don’t get paid and rarely get training opportunities. We train them to cover child marriage cases and women’s issues in a sensitive way. It’s a valuable skill to have. Before, you would read stories glamourising the child bride or minimising her plight but it doesn’t happen as much now.
Moral support is an important component of the workshops as well because journalists can feel discouraged by the slow pace of change. For reporters to know that by highlighting the problem of child marriage they strengthen our grassroots efforts to address the practice, this lessens their feeling of isolation and encourages them to continue.
“OUR RELATIONSHIP WITH LOCAL MEDIA IS ONE OF SOLIDARITY AND INTEGRITY”
There used to be a gulf between civil society and journalists. They pictured us sitting in big offices, making money. Now, they see what our work is like, and our relationship has changed to one of solidarity and integrity.
It’s not uncommon to see child marriages stopped by the joint efforts of journalists and civil society. And the message that child marriage is a violation of girls’ human rights reaches more and more people every day.
Ghulam Rasool’s death did not intimidate journalists, a reporter told me at a workshop. Quite the opposite: they are even more determined to continue their friend’s mission.
Together, SSO and local journalists will continue exposing violations of human rights, no matter how powerful the culprits are, until child marriage is no longer.