In February, a council of elders in Jacobabad, Pakistan, found that the brother of Muhammad Hashim Khoso was guilty of having an affair with a married woman. But instead of punishing the brother who was determined to have no assets to bargain with, the council, known as a ‘jirga,’ instead ordered Hashim to pay a $12,000 fine and hand over his two daughters, Fehmida and Sughra to be married off to two strange men from the guilty woman’s family as recompense for his brother’s crime. Fehmida and Sughra were only eight and two years old.
In a 400-year-old custom known as ‘vani,’ fathers offer girls as young as 1 into arranged marriages to settle debts and other feuds among tribes. Although the practice is illegal in Pakistan, perpetrators often escape prosecution. Pakistan is a signatory to the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, but the country’s government does not keep any record of child marriages.
In the rural communities of Pakistan, the decisions of the jirga are considered by many to be the law of the land. According to the international advocacy group Girls Not Brides, close to 21 percent of women in Pakistan marry before they reach the age of 18, a statistic that includes cases of vani. Worryingly, human rights advocates have expressed concern in recent years that the practice is again on the rise. “Earlier, the practice would take place as a tradition, a custom,” explained documentarian and anthropologist Samar Minallah Khan. “But now that people are becoming aware of the fact, it is being seen as a criminal offense. They try to practice it discreetly.”
Although the Pakistani government has the right to intervene in the case of vani, the trick is getting citizens to report instances of it. In January, the government approved a new out-of-court settlement process officials hope will encourage people to seek mediation through the government and effectively keep the decisions out the jirga’s hands. While Khan believes that government initiated reform is the only way to change the system, she is conscious that the jirga is ingrained into traditional Pakistani society and change will not come easily.
Hashim was able to escape the jirga’s ruling when a media report reached the ears of Pakistani’s chief court justice. The jirga was arrested and Hashim did not have to pay the fine or give up his daughters. But his experience is only one among hundreds of incidents that still occur annually in the country.
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