ISLAMABAD - Child brides may be hard to locate in liberal societies and even major Pakistani cities but in Thar an adult or fully grown-up married woman is the odd one out. Girls as young as nine years old are married to much older men - some find partners in the same age group which even worsens the issue. Child grooms as young as 10 are not very uncommon and there are hundreds of teenaged parents in addition to scores of grandparents in their twenties and thirties.

Kavita Meghwar, 15, said she was married off more than two years back with a sixteen-year-old. She already has a malnutritioned child who was admitted to the government-run hospital in Mithi. The 15-day-old child, according to her mother, was very weak and weighed only about half a kilogram. Her teenaged husband Keemat Meghwar worked as a mason and could not afford to take his dying son to Hyderabad or Karachi for better treatment. The skinny girl, whose childhood was blanketed with responsibilities, said she could not resist her parents’ desire to marry her to a boy from the same village. “It is a tradition here. I could not revolt. I had to accept their decision. I am not the only one who was married at this age. Girls much younger have children here,” she justified.

She said soon as the girls attain the age of eight, the parents start worrying about their marriage. “Some get married at eight, nine or ten. The rest before they are sixteen,” she added. Kavita Meghwar’s father Chando Meghwar – 65 – claimed the tradition of marrying off young girls was centuries’ old and no voice was raised against it. “I was married when I was 15 or 16. I have six children. My three sons work in Karachi and the fourth lives with me. The two daughters have been married and do weaving to earn money besides looking after the household chores. They earn for their own but most of the expenditures are supported by my sons,” he said.

He added his sons-in-law worked outside Thar so the daughters also lived with him. “They do send money and also visit after a few weeks,” he mentioned. Wahidi, a 45-year-old grandmother of many children from her two sons and four daughters, said she was at the Civil Hospital Mithi, to get one of her grandchildren treated. “He has a respiratory infection. The doctors here are trying their bit to save him,” she said. Wahidi boasted she had married her son Laxman – whose child was admitted to the hospital - at the age of 15 with Bhagwati about a year ago, who was almost the same age. “There is no reason not to marry your children. If they get married earlier, they will have kids in time to (financially) support them in time,” she defended.

Fifty-year-old Kewal said he was ‘free from all responsibilities’ after marrying his three children – all before the age of 18.  A teenaged couple – Hajo and Bhagi – said they succumbed to the family pressure to marry early. “We have two children. One of them is three years old the other is a newborn. He is weak and we are worried about his life. The doctors here believe they will save him,” Hajo said. Asked if he repented marrying at a very young age, the young father replied, “Not really. But I feel the children should not be married when they cannot take care of even themselves. I was a bit older at 16 when I married,” he remarked.

Himself a father of five - Dr Mohan Lal at the Civil Hospital Mithi said he had been trying to educate people about the disadvantages of child-marriages but nobody was ready to listen. He said the young mothers were left at the mercy of self-proclaimed midwives risking their lives. “By the time they reach here, much damage has already been done. But the death ratio is still quite low,” he added. Hospital staff said the doctors were employed on contract and their services were not regularised for years that prompted frustration. “Some doctors do not take their duties seriously due to this reason,” one official at the hospital said.

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Sindh Chief Minister Qaim Ali Shah said the custom of marrying off teenaged children in Thar – dominated by Hindu population – was an attempt to find joy in the otherwise dull and laborious life. “I would say there is no other entertainment. They try to dig out something out of nothing. This is a wrong tradition but it is hard to stop them,” he said in a lighter vein. Shah said the people from Thar had been marrying off children for centuries and it was “not easy” to change the trend. “With the growing literacy, we can hope for improvement. For the time being our focus is on fighting the famine,” he maintained.

About the regularisation of the doctors’ services, he said: “Soon as we regularise them they shift to big cities. This is the reason we are keeping them on contract.” Adviser to Chief Minister on Information Maula Bux Chandio said the Sindh government knew the deaths of newborn children were mainly due to child marriages. “There is no registration of Hindu marriages. This also stops the government from acting. We have been educating people but it will take time to improve the situation,” said the veteran politician. He admitted there were rare women who were married after 18. “By the time they are 18, most girls in Thar are mothers of several children,” he explained.

Chandio said the provincial government had upgraded health facilities to save the newborn children but due to sparse population it was not possible to provide services at the doorsteps. “Most of the people bring children to Karachi and other cities when they are already half dead. This is not due to the negligence of the government but the carelessness of the families,” he contended. Commissioner Mirpurkhas Division Shafiq Mahser claimed the administration was trying to discourage early marriages but there were no laws to stop such practice.

“We can only morally pressurise them. At this point we have no law to stop them. Everybody knows such marriages give rise to health issues,” he added. It was a fact, he said, there were rare woman who married after the age of 18. “The odd one here is a woman who is married at the right age,” he conceded. Deputy Commissioner Tharparkar Khuda Dino Shoro said the trend of early marriages was not limited to Hindus as Muslims living in the area also preferred to marry off their children in teen years and even before that. “For Muslims we have some laws and we do snub them but for Hindus we are awaiting proper legislation. Their marriages are not properly registered so they take the advantage,” he added.

It is the responsibility of the provinces to legislate for the country’s minorities. However, some minority issues are of national level and need national legal attention. The enactment of a Hindu marriage law is one of them. The Hindu community, according to the 1998 census, comprises around 2.4 million people. According to revised estimates of the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, Hindus constitute 1.85 percent of the total population of Pakistan, which would make their total population about 3.3 million. Child marriage is a formal marriage or informal union entered into by an individual before reaching the age of 18. The legally prescribed marriageable age in some jurisdictions is below 18 years, especially in the case of girls and even when the age is set at 18 years, many jurisdictions permit earlier marriage with parental consent or in special circumstances, such as teenage pregnancy.

In certain countries, even when the legal marriage age is 18, cultural traditions take priority over legislative law. Child marriage affects both boys and girls, though the overwhelming majority of those affected are girls, most of whom are in poor socio-economic situations. Child marriage is related to child betrothal, and it includes civil cohabitation and court approved early marriages after teenage pregnancy. In many cases, only one marriage-partner is a child, usually the female. Causes of child marriages include poverty, bride price, dowry, cultural traditions, laws that allow child marriages, religious and social pressures, regional customs, fear of remaining unmarried, illiteracy, and perceived inability of women to work for money.

According to survey reports, over 50 percent of all marriages in Pakistan involve girls less than 18 years old. A UNICEF report claimed 70 percent of girls in Pakistan were married before the age of 16. The exact number of child marriages in Pakistan below the age of 13 is unknown, but rising according to the United Nations. There are claims the rate of marriage of 8- to 13-year-old girls was exceeding 50 percent in northwest regions of Pakistan. Another custom in Pakistan, called swara or vani, involves village elders solving family disputes or settling unpaid debts by marrying off girls. The average marriage age of swara girls is between 5 and 9. Similarly, the custom of watta satta has been cited as a cause of child marriages in Pakistan.

According to Population Council, 35 percent of all females in Pakistan become mothers before they reach the age of 18, and 67 percent have experienced pregnancy — 69 percent of these have given birth — before they reach the age of 19.  Less than 4 percent of married girls below the age of 19 had some say in choosing her spouse, over 80 percent were married to a near or distant relative. Child marriage and early motherhood is common.