Quetta: Maria Ahmed was only 14 when she got married. A student of class 7, she was too young to realize what was happening. It was her parents’ idea to give her away in marriage to her cousin at a time when she was playing with dolls.
“One day I was a child, playing with my siblings and friends, and the next I was a wife and a mother,” Ahmad told News Lens at the Civil Hospital in Quetta where she was visiting for a medical checkup on becoming pregnant for the third time. “It was a sudden change and a great shock for me. Every time I get pregnant, I fear death because I am too weak to carry a baby while performing chores at home. When they are born, I don’t have enough nourishment to rear them properly.”
In tribal Balochistan, child marriages are a common phenomenon. Girls are married off at a very young age, with neither their parents nor in-laws knowing or considering the physical and psychological hazards and trauma awaiting the minor brides.
Ahmad has two baby girls. She is grateful that she has survived two pregnancies and births. She says very few mothers of her age come out alive from the pregnancy and delivery of children. “Culturally, men and families here prefer a male child and push you to more and more births till that happens.”
She said her mother wanted to marry her younger sister at the same age as her. “But I resisted and stopped her marriage. I convinced my mother by sharing my condition and experience of getting married at so early an age. I told her about the difficulties and hardships I had to undergo as a young wife and mother.”
Dr. Ayesha Siddiqa, a Quetta-based senior gynecologist, told News Lens that from a medical point of view when girls reach puberty, changes starts to happen in their bodies and it takes time before a body physically matures. “If a girl get married at such an age, and gets pregnant, she faces various problems because her body is not ready for it.”
For girl to become a complete woman needs time, said Dr Siddiqa, during which she goes psychologically and physically through different stages of life. “Both girls and boys should learn, eat and grow for at least 20 to 25 years to be ready for marriages because marriage at a very young age is psychologically and physically deadly for young couples and their future children. The lives of girls during pregnancy are more at risk at the age of 15 years compared to those at the age of 20.”
Early age marriages pose threat not only to the life of mother but the children conceived or delivered by a young mother. “It is a double jeopardy: The life of both mother and child are at great risk,” she said, adding that a large number of underage girls die due to high blood pressure while giving birth to a child.
Experts see religious and social norms as well as poverty and unawareness as major causes contributing to the cultural trend of marrying young girls. According to a health official in the Director General Office of Balochistan, who wished to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to speak to media, the government and the Health Department have no data of the underage mothers who lose their lives or that of their children in medical centers under the provincial government. However, he was of the view that mothers were often malnourished and died while giving birth to their first child in faraway areas.
Malak Safar Muhammad, a tribal elder, believes a girl is ready for marriage on attaining puberty. “Whether they are 12 or 13 years old, they become complete women and both our tradition and religious scholars say that early marriages keep young women from going wayward.”
Muhammad said most people around rural Balochistan were poor and could not pay for upkeep and education of their daughters let alone completing education. “This is why they always marry them at a very young age. They fear people will make fun of them if their daughters grow old as spinsters. Nobody marries a girl at 25 and 30. They believe she would not be capable of bearing several children.”
In addition to hazards associated with early marriages, population in Balochistan is scattered across far flung villages where health facilities are rare. According to locals, there is hardly a gynecologist out in the districts where children are delivered by midwives through centuries old traditional practices.
Hayatho Bibi, a traditional “lady health worker” told News Lens that young girls could hardly bear children. “They are neither experienced nor strong enough to carry themselves though pregnancy and childbirth,” says Bibi. “Many die even before reaching a hospital because of their weaker physique.”
Aliya Kakar, a social activist from Khanozai, Balochistan, says it is part of the tribal tradition to marry girls at a very young age. “Their childhood, growth, education, health and maturity is not a consideration.”
Religious scholars and tribal elders believe girls should be married off as early as possible, she adds. “In Balochistan, there is no law to check such marriages and let children have their rights. The civil society, government and international organizations should work together to ban child marriages.”