Men are stepping up to oppose child marriage in Pakistan

Men make up the majority of a nonprofit human rights group working to protect girls and women.

Courtesy of Sujag Sansar Organization/Facebook
The nonprofit Sujag Sansar Organization (“awakening the world") in Pakistan, made up mostly of men, promotes women’s rights, especially through its anti-child marriage efforts.

Audience members were captivated as the play unfolded around the story of a young girl forced into marriage and the struggles of life as a child bride. By the end, several were weeping openly and many resolved to protect their daughters from the same fate.

Theater is certainly an effective way to shed light on an issue few want to discuss—and Pakistan-based nonprofit Sujag Sansar Organization, which promotes women’s rights, especially via anti–child marriage efforts in Dadu District, helms these performances. But what makes SSO notable is that it’s mostly men who are standing up for women; seven out of 10 board members and 200 of the 300 volunteers are male. The reason: Cultural traditions discourage women from working outside the home, according to Mashooque Birhamani, SSO’s chief executive officer. While he hopes this will change one day, male community members are stepping up in the meantime.

“We men think that we must work for the rights of girls and women,” Birhamani tells TakePart. “These issues are basic issues that are keeping our society from progressing. The time will come when women will be empowered and they will replace men and work for their rights.”

Founded in 2004—Sujag Sansar translates to “awakening the world"—the organization focuses on human rights issues not often addressed by politicians, including educational access, environmental protection, and clean drinking water.

“Our goal is a society free from any kind of discrimination,” Birhamani says.

In Pakistan, the legal age to marry is 18 for men and 16 for women. In Dadu’s province of Sindh, legislators recently raised the age to 18 for women as well, thanks in part to SSO’s campaigns. However, girls are often married off when they're as young as 10 and, occasionally, the groom may be underage, too, according to Birhamani.

Precise figures are scarce but a 2007 UNICEF survey estimated that 24 percent of Pakistani brides are under the legal age; SSO’s research indicates 35 to 37 percent of marriages in Sindh province involve child brides. Families often offer their daughter as a bride in exchange for money, Birhamani said. While Pakistan law requires that a woman consent to her partner, the law is rarely enforced and many women are unaware of that right.

The practice of child marriage creates numerous problems for society, according to SSO. Teenagers are more likely to die in childbirth than older women. Wives typically aren't allowed to attend school and have little hope of earning money to support their families, perpetuating poverty. If the partners do not get along, women fall victim to domestic violence, or the families that arranged the union may argue. This can lead to dissolution of the marriage or family feuds that escalate into tribal battles and honor killings.

These consequences are often not obvious to men or women in Dadu District. Many married young themselves and consider the practice normal. Some religious leaders preach in support of early marriage, incorrectly teaching that it's against Islamic law for a girl to live with her parents after puberty. Even SSO did not think child marriage was a major concern when the organization first formed, Birhamani said—until members researched the practice and realized it has several negative consequences.

As many citizens are not literate, SSO employs theater to spread information. Before the show, many in the audience will attest that child marriage is not a concern. Once actors take the stage, however, attendees quickly become engrossed in the story and cheer characters on. After the play, many change their mind on the issue and even promise to speak out against child marriage in their communities.

Some families still pursue child marriages, so SSO recruits community leaders to try to prevent the marriages. The organization also educates religious leaders about the consequences and so far, 35 locals have pledged to verify ages before performing a wedding. SSO has also organized villagers into committees that notify police and journalists if they become aware of an underage marriage being planned; since 2010, they’ve prevented 33 underage marriages in the district.

While anti–child marriage efforts are a cornerstone of its mission, SSO runs a number of other initiatives to promote health and education. Girls and women are typically kept at home but SSO has opened primary schools and enrolled 547 girls since 2006. Graduates hope to gain admission to secondary schools in cities and eventually universities, Birhamani said. Clean water is also a major issue—many citizens, usually women and children, must walk five or more miles in search of drinking water. The task often keeps children, particularly girls, out of school.

SSO’s theater performances effectively explain these issues to locals as well, making it clear that all residents have a right to safe drinking water and encouraging them to advocate peacefully for the government to provide a water supply. Several communities have since taken action and received new water sources, Birhamani says. Other projects include advocating for preservation of forests and assisting people affected by flooding.

Though progress is slow and steady, Birhamani is optimistic SSO's efforts can eventually stamp out negative practices.

“We are seeing that the future will be bright…with betterment and good hope for all,” he said.

• Amber Dance is a freelance writer based in Southern California. She has contributed to publications including the Los Angeles Times, The Scientist, and PNAS Front Matter.

This article originally appeared at TakePart, a leading source of socially relevant news, features, opinion, entertainment, and information – all focused on the issues that shape our lives.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.