[Islamabad] Hadiqa Bashir, 19, has been actively working against early and forced marriages for the last eight years in Pakistan’s Swat Valley, once a hotbed of the Pakistani Taliban.
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For years, the Taliban broadcasted threats on the radio to intimidate girls into not attending school. The militants controlled the entire valley from 2007 to 2009, when the Pakistani Army retook the area.
Bashir has taken on the challenge of ending child marriage in a community where it is the norm and where girls can be offered for marriage in exchange for settling disputes.
Her father, Ifthikar Ahmad, a government contractor, is a former schoolteacher. Her mother, Sajda Ifthikar, is a senior consultant at a local dispute resolution center. Bashir is their only daughter; she has two younger brothers.
She is now studying for her bachelor’s degree in sociology at Jahanzeb College, in Saidu Sharif, the capital of the Swat District in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, formerly known as the North-West Frontier Province.
Bashir told The Media Line in an exclusive interview: “The idea of standing up against forced marriages came to me when a friend got married at an early age. She was constantly tortured by her husband who made her mentally ill.
“At the age of 12, I decided to start fighting against child marriages,” she continued. “In 2014, I motivated some close friends and we formed Girls United for Human Rights.”
The group comprises 10 girls, all under the age of 18 years; together, they fight against forced child marriages and for equal opportunities for girls. The group envisions a peaceful and tolerant society where all girls have equal status, dignity and respect.
“After school hours, we visit house to house to speak to women, persuading them to not marry off their underage daughters,” Bashir said.
“At first, the community didn’t support us, but now it is; there are a lot of people in our community who are supporting me. One human being with conviction can bring real change,” she said.
“We also conduct awareness sessions in local schools, colleges and communities, to talk openly about the bad impacts of a girl’s underage marriage, the benefits of child education, and health issues,” Bashir continued.
Responding to a question from The Media Line, she said, “We have no support from the government side; we collect our pocket money to run our campaign.
“My father supported me a lot and he managed to get some financial assistance from the FRIDA organization, but it was not enough for our long-lasting and continued struggle,” Bashir added.
FRIDA − The Young Feminist Fund is an American NGO that provides organizers with resources to amplify their voices.
Bashir received a Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Core Principle Award in 2015 for her work against early and forced marriages in tribal regions of Pakistan.
Aged 13 at the time, she was the youngest recipient of the honor, named for the legendary American boxer.
“I firmly believe that change in such a patriarchal and male-dominated society does not happen overnight, rather it takes a long struggle to achieve such a goal,” Bashir said.
“Pakistan’s government has taken some steps against forced early-age marriages but the punishments or penalties are very light,” she continued. “We are lobbying lawmakers to increase imprisonment and fines.
“Education can play a pivotal role to eradicate and stop early-age forced marriages, but unfortunately there is a lack of educational institutes in the Swat Valley. More schools and colleges are required on an urgent basis,” Bashir said.
“According to our group survey,” she continued, “about 65% of the population is practicing early-age forced marriages, and the reasons are poverty, lack of education and cultural practices such as Swara.”
Swara is customary practice in tribal areas in which underage girls are given in marriage as compensation for crimes and to settle feuds between families.
Saeedain Khan, a senior attorney practicing before the High Court in Rawalpindi, told The Media Line that “the practice of Swara violates the constitution of the country.
“Article 9 of the Constitution guarantees that no person shall be deprived of life or liberty save in accordance with law. It also violates Article 4 of the Constitution, which guarantees that every citizen has full right to enjoy the protection of the law. On the contrary, such practice blatantly violates it,” he continued.
“Under the Constitution of Pakistan, forced marriage and marriage of children of tender age have been regarded as offenses and punishable under both the Pakistan Penal Code and the Child Marriage Restraint Act,” Khan said.
According to a 2018 UNICEF report, “21% of Pakistani girls are married by the age of 18, and 3% before 15.”
According to another survey, conducted by the Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey (PDHS) in 2019, “13% of women who marry before the age of 18 have completed primary education whereas two out of three (67% of) child brides received no schooling.”
The Constitution of Pakistan sets the legal age of marriage at 16 for girls and 18 for boys.
In April 2019, Pakistan’s Senate passed a bill that would raise the age for girls to 18. The legislation is still pending final approval in the National Assembly.
The measure, introduced by Senator Sherry Rehman, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United States, seeks a complete ban on marriages before the age of 18.
Bashir’s father, a social reformer, told The Media Line that “it is in our culture to marry girls as early as possible.”
“When Hadiqa was 11 years old, she received a marriage proposal. We were worried but when we talked to Hadiqa, she unexpectedly refused. I had no idea that my daughter was so daring, and indeed she has been a leader from birth. She not only refused but rejected the system and cultural norms,” Ahmad revealed.
“When she received her first award, she was threatened by unknown persons. Meanwhile, she was expelled from the private school where she was studying,” he said.
“The school administration told us that they could not endanger other students because Hadiqa is under threat. No private school was willing to take her so finally I arranged a guard for my teenage girl and got her admission to a government school,” he added.
“Hadiqa is still under threat. A few days ago, a boy brandishing an AK-47 threatened Hadiqa via her social media account, saying, ‘You should go to hell,’” Ahmad said.
The matter was referred to the local police.
Allama Mohammed Sajjad, a Rawalpindi-based prominent scholar and the imam of a grand mosque, told The Media Line, “Islam regards marriage as a union between two consenting adults which aims to perpetuate human life and achieve spiritual and emotional harmony.
“Islam is against the idea of women being forced to marry against their wishes. On the contrary, it encourages women to choose their spouses. According to the command of the Holy Prophet, ‘A widow or divorcee is not to be remarried unless her consent is sought,” Sajjad said.
Erfan Hussein Babak is executive director of The Awakening, a Swat-based organization working for social and cultural development.
“The women and girls of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province in Pakistan are living under a tribal and feudal system that is based on patriarchy,” he told The Media Line.
“A lack of implementation of existing laws, the tribal and feudal structure of society, lack of awareness among the public about the harmful effect of child marriage, and extreme poverty are the main causes of early-age forced marriages,” Babak said.
“Education and effective legislation with proper implementation mechanisms are important issues that need to be addressed on an urgent basis,” he continued. “Government should commit to the reduction of poverty, which is one of the biggest causes of early-age marriages.
Asked about opposition to his efforts on the issue, Babak said, “No formal threats have been received; however, there is strong resistance within the communities on sensitive issues like girl’s rights and child marriages.”
In 2016, Bashir became the first Pakistani girl to receive the Asian Girls Human Rights Ambassador award.
She is also a two-time International Children’s Peace Prize nominee (2016 and 2017), a Commonwealth Youth Awards for Excellence in Development Work finalist (2017), the winner of the With and For Girls Award (2018-19) and a Women Deliver Young Leader.
Bashir is part of the 17-member 2020 class of the United Nations’ Young Leaders for the Sustainable Development Goals.