15 child brides used to settle Pakistan feud
Declan Walsh in Islamabad The Guardian, Thursday June 5 2008
It started with a dead dog, escalated into a tit-for-tat tribal war, and has now reached a grotesque climax with the exchange of 15 child brides.
Pakistani human rights activists are outraged at reports that a long-running blood feud in a remote corner of western Baluchistan province has been resolved by the handing over of 15 girls, aged between three and 10, for marriage.
"There has to be action," said Asma Jahangir, a leading rights campaigner. "These people who force others to sell their daughters must be sent to prison."
The new government in Islamabad, led by the party of the late Benazir Bhutto, has promised to act. "We will not allow young girls to be traded like this," said the information minister, Sherry Rehman. "The culprits who tried to do this will be arrested. The orders have been given."
But Jahangir said those orders had not been acted upon. "There is a dysfunction in the whole system. They are not listening to the government," she said. "We need to see them being more effective than just rhetoric."
Vanni, an ancient tribal practice in which feuding clans settle their differences by exchanging women for marriage, is illegal in Pakistan. In 2004 the Sindh high court outlawed all such "parallel justice" systems. But the writ of government is weak in rural areas, and local police often turn a blind eye.
The current controversy started with a row over a dog, said Muhammad Paryal Marri, a researcher in northern Sindh for the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
A dog owned by one tribe, the Chakranis, was shot dead because it strayed too close to a well controlled by their rivals, the Qalandaris. In revenge the Chakranis shot a donkey belonging to the other side. A ferocious bout of tit-for-tat killings ensued in which 19 people, including five women, were killed.
The fighting ended in 2002 when Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti - a rebellious tribal chieftain who was later killed by the Pakistan army - brought the two sides together. Bugti ordered the Chakranis to hand over 15 child brides in compensation; at a jirga, or tribal council. Last Friday they finally agreed to make good on that promise, said Marri.
"They agreed to pay some money and exchange the ladies," he said.
Such brutal traditions have only come to light for a broader public in the past decade, thanks to activism by human rights groups and publicity from local media.
"Barbarity in the name of tradition," declared the English-langauge newspaper Dawn earlier this week in a scathing editorial against the "medieval mindset that dominates many sections of our society".
But, despite previous shows of similar anger, official action has lagged far behind. "The government is unwilling to use its authority to protect women. It will find any excuse," said Jahangir.
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