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Last Updated: Thursday, 24 November 2005, 18:15 GMT
Defying child marriage custom
By Nadeem Saeed
BBC News, Sultanwala

Amna: "I would rather die than to succumb to this... cruel custom'

She was married to a man from a rival clan at the age of 10 to settle a family dispute.

"All I remember is that my mother cried a lot," says Amna, now nearly 20 years old.

Amna is one of three sisters fighting for their freedom from a tribal tradition in Pakistan in which they have no say.

The three - along with two cousins - were married under 'vani' - a tribal tradition whereby disputes are settled through 'marrying' girls from the offending family to men from the supposedly aggrieved clan.

The marriages were ordered by a village council (jirga).

The custom was outlawed by the national government in January - but it still flourishes in many parts of the country.

Police officials say that families resorting to vani for settling their disputes often keep such deals secret - making it difficult for law enforcers to intervene.

She may have understood little at the age of 10, but in time Amna came to realise the enormity of what had happened to her.

Her 'husband' had asked that Amna be sent to live with him when she had finished her degree.

But along with her younger sisters - Abida and Sajida - Amna has chosen to resist.

Amna comes from the village of Sultanwala - a typical settlement in the backwaters of the highly conservative district of Mianwali.

She has enrolled for a Master's degree in English - a rarity in that part of the world for a woman. As rare as resisting the custom of vani.

When the three sisters decided to resist the custom of vani, a group of men allegedly sent by their husbands stormed the village.

The resulting gun battle left two of their cousins seriously injured.

The sisters asked the local authorities for protection.

"But to this day, we have none. The men who attacked my cousins are still roaming free," says Amna.


Amna's troubles began when her uncle was alleged to have to murdered someone from a neighbouring clan.

Amna's father
Amna's father - 'I had no option'

The aggrieved party asked for the five girls in marriage in order to forgive and forget the murder.

Her father, Amna says, was powerless at the time to stop the deal.

But he chose a novel defence - he decided to educate his girls so they could fight the tradition themselves.

"It was primarily his support that encouraged us to raise our voice," she says.

"Sajida is my father's favourite and the most outspoken among us.

"But all of us had vowed that even if our father buckled under pressure, we would rather commit suicide than to go with our husbands."

One can sense her resentment when she talks about the village maulvi (cleric) who performed the child marriage ceremony.

"He should have known that Islam does not permit such practices," she says.

And she is convinced that her only ally in this dangerous situation is education.

Her village has two schools but they are used, in her words, "to keep cattle".

That was why her father, Jehan Khan Niazi, an accounts officer with a local government department, took her girls to the neighbouring district of Khushab for their schooling.

"I had no option at the time I agreed to give my daughters in vani," Mr Niazi told the BBC.

"The village council gave me only five minutes to decide and that too under the shadow of a gun," he says.

"Even the maulvi told me that the only way to save our lives was to accept the decision of the jirga. Maybe I was a coward, what else can I say?"

Meanwhile, Amna says her family are in peril.

"But I would rather die than to succumb to this mindless and cruel custom."

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