LAHORE, Pakistan 24 November, 2014 (UNHCR) — On a foggy morning on the edge of Lahore, a gathering of Afghan refugee women and girls were chatting and giggling. The opportunity to express themselves and be heard was a moment of enjoyment for all, except for one young woman who sat quietly among them.
Gul Meena, a young woman in early twenties, wearing a red heavy traditional Afghan dress, held her three-year-old daughter Gulalai. With her big hazel eyes and red hair, little Gulalai was trying to snatch biscuits from her eight-month-old sister Hina.
The other women started teasing Gul Meena for giving birth to a baby girl almost every year. One woman said impishly that Gul Meena and her husband were marrying off their daughters to get money for food and rent. Gul Meena burst into tears while trying to retain her smile.
Gul Meena’s husband sold his minor daughters Laila, aged seven, and Gulalai, aged three, for Rs. 250,000 (USD 2500) each. Laila’s future husband is already married twice and is above 45 years of age while Gulalai’s future husband is 25-years-old. Both the girls will be formally married off at the age of 10, according to their mother.
“My husband is a drug addict, I don’t have a son to earn,” Gul Meena told a visiting UNHCR team. “We have no option but to marry our daughters to buy food and have a roof over our head.” She said, while looking at Gulalai, who was oblivious to the fact that she was sold and declared married, sitting happily eating biscuits, and joshing her baby sister.
Child marriages are common in Afghan Pashtoon culture. Unfortunately, the practice is socio-culturally, religiously and in customary law acceptable. It has therefore become a big challenge for child protection humanitarian workers.
Gul Meena’s story emerged during a visit by UNHCR female staff to assess their needs through participatory assessments and discussions. UNHCR teams regularly conduct such meetings with refugee communities to directly assess some of the most pressing needs of the people and provide assistance when required.
Pakistan currently hosts some 1.6 million registered Afghans, the largest protracted refugee situation globally. Women and girls constitute 47 per cent of the total refugee population in Pakistan, whose voices are often unheard when it comes to decision making. Of them, 23 per cent girls are under the age of eighteen.
Gulalai’s story is nothing unusual in the Pashtoon community where marriages under 16 are widespread. In addition to cultural reasons, another major contributing factor of child marriage is poverty, which induces parents to give their daughters in exchange of debts or to settle family or tribal feuds. In the worst situations, drug addict fathers and brothers sell their daughters and sisters for a large sum of money to elderly men like Gul Meena’s husband.
Gulalai’s family suffered when her father, Samad Khan, was admitted to a drug detox and rehabilitation centre managed by a partner agency of UNHCR. Samad Khan once was a competent carpet weaver, and UNHCR staff has spoken with a local carpet-weaving factory to enable Samad Khan to earn his living after his drug detoxification and rehabilitation.
“In a case such as Gulalai’s family, it is not only about an addicted father and helpless mother,” said Svetlana Karapandzic, a Protection Officer at UNHCR Islamabad’s Field Unit. “It is more about the mindset and culturally acceptable harmful practices.”
It will require long-term efforts to create awareness in a very sensitive manner on child rights and the long-term consequences of these practices on children, families and communities. UNHCR in Pakistan has developed a three year, multi-layered community development plan in this context for implementation through partner agencies.
The plan includes intensive consultative sessions with refugee communities on issues of gender-based violence, children’s rights, women’s rights, and the right to education and access to health facilities. In order to implement the project in an efficient manner, UNHCR with the help of a partner agency has formed sector-wise committees with the representation of refugees. A special emphasis is given to ensure empowerment of women and girls through participation of women in these committees.
The plan is focused on two areas: provision of better livelihood opportunities, so that people do not have to sell their daughters, and sensitization of communities on the harmful impact of cultural practices and their gradual eradication.
“Hopefully we will be able to curtail these harmful practices in the targeted communities by 2017”, said Karapandzic.
“In 2017 Gulalai will only be six years old,” said Karapandzic. “We are aiming to help her and others like her to escape from an early marriage by that time.”
By Farah Ayub in Lahore, Pakistan