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Women Under Islam (Part Three of Four)
by Adrian Morgan

Pakistan's "Compensation Marriages"

Most Muslim marriages involve becoming firstly engaged, followed by an official marriage. Such betrothal should involve partners who are able to give consent. However, in the Indian subcontinent, there are cases where families force children to make binding marriage vows. In May 2006 in Rajasthan, India, a 19-year old woman was forcibly separated from her husband, whom she had married when of legal age. The local community, supported by Muslim clerics argued that the woman's father had married her to another child on May 8, 1990, when she was only two years old. As local cleric Mufti Akhla-Ur-Rehman Kazmi explained: "Though it is wrong to marry a minor, it has been done. But she has not been divorced, how can she marry again? It is against our laws."

In Pakistan, not only do illegal child marriages sometimes occur, they happen on the orders of village councils of elders. Under Pakistan's Muslim Family Law Ordinance, a girl must reach 16, and a boy must reach 18, before a marriage can take place. Both parties must give consent. Pakistan ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Child in 1990. In February this year in Dera Ismail Khan in Punjab province, a four year old girl was married to a 45-year old man. The child had been ordered to marry as "compensation" to settle a family feud by a local council of elders, to settle a family feud. The girl's uncle had transgressed custom by eloping with the 45-year old man's niece.

This custom is known in Punjab and Sindh province as "vani", and in the tribal areas of North-West Frontier province, the practice is called "swara". Essentially it is the same in all three provinces; a tribal council (called a panchayat in Punjab, a jirga in Sindh and NWFP) orders a male to expiate a crime by sacrificing a girl relative in marriage. Vani marriage was outlawed at the start of 2005 by the Pakistani government, after a case in Multan in 2004 where a three-year old girl was married off to a 60-year old man. Muslim clerics solemnize these marriages, and even offer dire threats to girls and their families if they do not comply.

In November 2005 a panchayat in the village of Sultanwala in Punjab ordered that if five girls did not comply with orders of vani marriage, they should be abducted, raped or killed. The girls had been ordered as vani compensation in 1996, when they were aged between six and 13 years, after a male relative had shot a family rival. The girls had then been married "in absentia" by an Islamic cleric.

Vani marriages can be ordered against girl children who have not even been born. In Dera Ghazi Khan, Punjab on April 7, 2006, a case of vani came to light where a council ordered that four as-yet unborn girls from one family should be promised as compensation for a murder committed eight years earlier.

A few days later Naheed Akhtar, a 24-year-old woman from Mianwali in Punjab, lodged a police complaint against her father for having her married off. She and her "groom" had been only one-year-old at the time of the "marriage". The vani contract had been agreed in 1982, for a murder which had happened in 1960. The woman also sued Irfan, her "husband" who had been one at the time of the marriage. She also sued the "husband" who was married to her elder sister as part of the vani arrangement. An imam, Maulvi Noor Muhammad, had performed the "marriages".

In the same month (April), a jirga had ordered a family in North-West Frontier province to provide a girl in "swara" compensation to a family whose daughter had eloped with one of their kin. The "guilty" family had no girl children, so it was ordered by the jirga to purchase a girl. A 13-year old girl was bought at a market in Peshawar for 53,000 rupees ($876). Because the girl was emotionally distraught, she was rejected by the family.

On April 17, 2006, it was reported that two girls from Mianwali, aged 12 and 7, had been ordered as vani for an affair carried out by their brother. The 12-year-old was to be given to a 28-year-old man, and the 7-year-old to an 8-year-old boy. A Muslim cleric had performed a marriage ceremony without the girls present, but no marriage papers had been filed.

In May 2006, a 9-year-old girl from Dera Ghazi Khan petitioned to have her father sued under Islamic law for marrying her off in a vani deal. Her brother had engaged in an affair with a girl from the family of her "husband". Her husband, Shaukat Hussain, had forced her to engage in sexual intercourse. The petition stated that an Islamic cleric, Manzoor Hussain, had been bribed to falsify marriage documents to claim that she was 18. A court petition was also launched by the girl's brother against the cleric, the girl's "husband" and father-in-law.

Vani and swara marriages are abuses of young girls' human rights. In May last year an 11-year-old boy was strangled after being offered as a vani marriage partner to a family who had earlier kidnapped his elder sister. In June a local government minister in Sindh province was named as one of the members of a jirga which gave a girl away in vani marriage. Dr Sohrab Sarki of the Pakistan People's Party was a former member of the national parliament.

The denial of a child's rights was highlighted in June where a man from Punjab province "sold" his 13-year-old step-daughter to one of his friends, to cover a 16,000 rupees ($266) debt. In the same month two Sindh girls, ages six and eight, were given in marriage to cover the price of three buffaloes. In the same month, the highest court in Pakistan annulled the marriage of five girls who had been given away by the jirga attended by Sohrab Sarki. Five girls had been involved, with the youngest being one year old, and the eldest five years. The same court also ordered an inquiry into the "buffalo" transaction.



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