12-Year-Old Pakistani Girl's Battle Against Forced Marriage Shocks Commu...

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) noted that one in five girls worldwide, or 650 million women, were forced to marry as children.

Despite efforts by institutions such as the United Nations to put an end to child and forced marriages (CFM), they are still prevalent in many parts of the world. In a remote province in Pakistan, a woman and her family are putting up a fight against an outdated and illegal tradition of forced marriage in their village that has haunted her for much of her life.

When 25-year-old Inteha Bibi was engaged last year, she thought it was the happiest moment of her life, not only because she would get to marry the man of her choice but also because she thought she found freedom from a centuries-old tradition that threatened her life since she was 12 years old, when a man laid claim to her.

But her fiance and his family broke off the engagement within just a few months after a man who laid claim on Bibi when she was 12, Mahabat Khan, was trying to enforce a ghag on Bibi and made it clear to the community in the tribal Bajaur district in the north-western province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in Pakistan, which borders Afghanistan, that he still intends to enforce it. 

Ghag, a Pashto word meaning “proclamation,” is a custom that allows a man to forcibly claim a woman as his intended wife, usually by firing a gun outside the woman’s house or by writing an open declaration for a girl’s hand without her or her parent’s consent.

Even though the Parliament of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa already banned ghag forced marriages in 2013 and made it punishable by up to seven years in prison or a hefty fine, the outdated custom persists in some parts of the province. Most cases of ghag are not reported, and when they do reach court, the accused men are often granted bail after offering bail. 

The custom also dictates that once a man lays claim to a woman, she cannot marry anyone else, even if the woman and her family reject the man’s proposal. In the case of Bibi, there was an attempt to take her away from her home. Back in 2019, Khan’s brother tried to snatch Bibi while she was staying in her stepmother’s house. 

He went there with a pistol in his hand and told them, “I am here to take Bibi, my sister-in-law. Bibi is my brother’s wife, and he has a claim on her.

 “I started shivering and crying. We shut the door and told him there was no man at home, he should go, and he left.” Bibi recalled.

The incident, along with Khan’s insistence on enforcing the illegal tradition, greatly impacted Bibi’s health and severely traumatized her.

I have no life,” Bibi said. “I am traumatized, I have anxiety and can’t sleep without medication. I am a human, and I have all rights to get engaged and married to whoever I want. I am a woman, not a toy, and I don’t want to be married to someone forcibly.

Bibi’s younger brother, Sanaullah, a university student in Islamabad, is fighting in the courts for her sister’s rights after the local jirga – a council composed of tribal elders – failed to act in their case. Under a court order, Mahabat Khan and his brothers were arrested in 2021. Khan signed an affidavit that he would not claim ghag again, a promise he later broke.

He lied,” Sanaullah told the Guardian. “After my sister got engaged in mid-2021, he told her fiance and the family to break off the engagement because he had claimed ghag. He said he would return the amount they invested in the engagement. We left the village and moved to Islamabad, but the man does not stop his evil act.

My sister has become ill and can’t leave home and does not talk to her sisters, but the evil man takes pride in it,” he added. “We live in the medieval dark ages.

Sanaullah returned to Bajaur's court to demand further action after Bibi’s engagement was broken off. However, he has received death threats, and everyone in his tribal district is afraid of reaching out to his sister.

“It has been months since the family was forced to break the engagement,” Sanaullah said. “I am fighting for the rights of my sister, but I am disappointed at the system because justice must be seen to be done. It has not been seen in our case.

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