A young woman (we will call her Amina) sits with her cousin in the courtyard of her family home in Chitral in northern Pakistan, sipping tea and unfolding a tale of past troubles.
The eldest of seven children, Amina was just 15 when her father accepted a marriage proposal from a man in a town 9 hours’ drive from her home. The groom was 45 years old, already married, and the father of five children. Amina says that she had no way to reject the proposal, “because my father has a right to make our family decisions.”
Among the poor villages of Chitral, on the border with Afghanistan, marrying daughters off to wealthy men in another district, or even another country, can represent an opportunity for a new and better life for young girls. But these so-called “down country” marriages can also leave young women effectively enslaved in their new homes, while exposing them and their families to financial fraud.
In Amina’s case, the marriage did not work out. The well-established first wife took to abusing Amina and refusing to let her talk to the husband. Distraught, Amina called her father; he brought her back home less than a month after the wedding.
Amina wanted a divorce, but the husband wouldn’t give her one. Nor could her father afford the fees necessary to sue for a divorce in court. Amina was stuck.
Problems like this one with down country marriages are the most common issue handled by community legal advisors, or paralegals, who are now working in Chitral with the development agency Sarhad Rural Support Programme (SRSP). Backed by fully qualified lawyers at SRSP, the paralegals understand the legal issues involved, and can explain to troubled families or to individual women what the law can do to help.
Shahida, a head paralegal with SRSP, explains that although the minimum legal age for girls to marry in Pakistan is 16, most of her clients have been married at 13 or 14 in an arranged match. Often a relation or neighbor will make the connection, and the bride never meets her husband before the wedding day. When the time comes for the bride to formally give consent, most have little choice but to accept their elders’ decision.
When a new bride arrives in her husband’s home, far from her own village, the picture is often very different from what she had been led to expect. Usually, she will find her new husband has one—or sometimes many—other wives. Frequently he will be significantly older than she has been promised and will look utterly different from the photo she has seen.
Shahida recalls situations where a man from Dubai gave a dower of $15,000, a vast amount in rural Chitral, spent a short time with his would-be bride in her home district, and asked the family to "lend" back the money to him so he could arrange a visa for her travel to live with him. The family never heard from him again and subsequently found his identification documents were false.
Often the middle-man has, unbeknown to the parents, taken a significant fee for arranging the marriage—sometimes around $10,000 or so. While the dower is legally the property of the bride, rather than her family, parents will sometimes accept smaller sums for their daughters, often in the range of $400–$600, a criminal offense under Pakistani law.
“Fathers are naïve in accepting these arrangements,” observes Shahida. “They want the best for their daughter, and are aware that a village boy wouldn’t be able to offer this much.”
When the groom lives in the Gulf, dowries of $15,000 or more may be offered, to be paid either during the marriage or on dissolution. However, women are normally encouraged to “forgive” this amount; and even if the marriage comes to an end, men often refuse a formal divorce in an effort to avoid payment. As a result, girls may be left lingering for years, unsure of their future and unable to remarry or get on with their lives. SRSP’s team commonly encounters young women in this bleak situation.
This was the situation that Amina found herself in, and it lasted for more than three years. But then her cousin, a women’s adult literacy teacher and social activist, told her about the SRSP legal project. No one in her community had ever been to a lawyer before. She remembers: “My father is very conservative and didn’t want me to open a case—but my cousin persuaded him. He’s so happy now!”
SRSP took her case. After the husband refused to negotiate, Amina obtained a decree from the court this spring, granting the divorce and ordering payment of the dower. Amina herself is delighted. She plans to become a teacher and never wants to get married again. Her father has also learned from this experience—several of his other daughters have received proposals through middlemen for down country marriages; he’s refused all of them.