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.