Swara Girls Punished for Crimes They Did Not Commit

Despite being illegal, the custom of forcibly marrying girls off to resolve family and tribal disputes happens on an alarming scale across all provinces of Pakistan. This custom is called swara.

Old muslim men sit around deciding a girls future

Jirgas Photo by Tribune.com.pk

Mahnun’s story.

Mahnun was 8 when a jirga decided she should be given as a swara; her older sister, then 10, had already been promised to a cousin.

The stories are disturbingly repetitive: a land dispute, yet another crime, a family seeking revenge, another men-only jirga of powerful local leaders, and an innocent girl’s future taken from her.

Mahnun’s case was unusual because her father, both the perpetrator of the crime and a caring parent, would not accept the sentence.

He pleaded with the jirga, offering to give all he owned in exchange for his daughter. Her mother vowed she would not live to see her little girl be taken away by a stranger. “They can behead me, but they won’t take my daughter. I won’t let them to take my daughter,” she screamed when she heard the news. But the offended family said they would only accept the girl, so the jirga consented, recounted Mahnun’s mother.

With no other option available to them, Mahnun’s family gathered up some clothes, whatever utensils they could carry, and escaped in the darkness. They left everything else behind and went into hiding.

The four now live in a single shabby room of a dilapidated compound that they share with other families. They have no electricity. The toilet is a walled-off hole in the ground outside; a few buckets are used to bring water for bathing. Cooking is done in the single pan they brought from home, placed over wood in the courtyard.

Mahnun’s father found a temporary job as a driver, but his contract came to an end and now he is unemployed. “We are borrowing money from others so we can feed the children. We have no choice,” he says. “Nothing matters more to us than our two girls and their lives.”

One window of the room frames the snow-covered mountains in the distance; in the other corner rest heavy blankets, gifts from compassionate neighbors. But Mahnun’s family is still wary of those around them: “In this new village we haven’t told anyone that she is a swara. If people know about this they won’t leave us here alive,” says Mahnun’s mother. Disobeying a jirga’s decision and escaping would be considered an act of betrayal for which the family would not be forgiven.

“Each and every day we live in fear. What if they find us?” says Mahnun’s mother. She accompanies both daughters to school and waits there until they leave. At age 10, Mahnun is in seventh grade and dreams of becoming a judge. “I will ban the custom of swara, and I will put men who do it in jail,” she says hopefully.

“She is getting naughty because she knows she is loved so much,” her father explains, giving Mahnun a warm smile.

Rafaqat’s story.

Rafaqat, a tiny woman with sun-cracked skin, has dedicated her life to eliminating swara in the area. “I’m an old lady. If they kill me, so what? I’ll die eventually,” she says, laughing loudly.

In 1998, Rafaqat’s teenage nephew fell for a girl already promised to somebody else. He knew his love was prohibited, so he ran away with the girl. To compensate the family’s loss, the jirga decided the boy’s younger sister, Rafaqat’s niece, should be given away as a swara. She was 11.

Rafaqat never saw her again. She managed to stay informed about the niece’s movements, so she knew when the girl became pregnant. When the time came, her new family refused to take her to the hospital.

At age 14, the swara girl gave birth to a son, but died in labor. “They never came to her funeral. They never paid condolences to our family,” Rafaqat tells me. “All they said was: We had our badal [revenge].”

Flaws in Pakistan’s judicial system also lead residents to rely on the jirgas. “Traditional courts in Pakistan have very bad records. There are unsolved cases going back more than 30 years, still in process, and the whole justice system is seen as highly corrupt,” says Khaliq. “It is also very expensive. Courts charge for each and every service, so the poor can’t afford it, whereas the Islamic courts [jirgas] are free and speedy.”

Story by Adriana Carranca.  Follow her on Twitter: @AdrianaCarranca.

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