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Pakistan's Anti-Child Marriage Crusader Who's Just A Kid Herself

Hadiqa Bashir
Hadiqa Bashir
Mudassar Shah

MINGORA — At 13, Hadiqa Bashir is herself just a child, but she's already working to save girls from child marriage in rural Pakistan. Though it's illegal in Pakistan, marrying young children to much older men is still widely practiced in the Swat Valley.

Visiting Hadiqa Bashir today is a young girl, Shabana, who is with her mother. A white gauze covers her nose, and she explains the horrific reason why. "My mother-in-law asked my husband to complete his job today and she left the house," Shabana says. "I had my young son with me, and my husband asked his sister to take my son to another room and soon after he cut my nose. The next morning my mother-in-law came, and when she checked my nose, she said that it should be cut some more."

The family claims this violent crime was because Shabana didn't perform her chores well enough.

The police were slow to act at first. Bashir and human rights groups had to pressure them to even register the case, but now Shabana's husband is in jail awaiting trail. He is trying to pressure her for reconciliation.

Shabana now lives with her parents and often visits Bashir, who gives her financial and emotional support. Bashir was motivated to help others after she was nearly married off when she was just 10.

"My grandmother started thinking seriously about my marriage, so I decided to refuse marrying and instead continue my studies," she explains. "I decided to stand against child marriages to stop my peers from suffering from the evil practice. I openly told my grandmother that I am not going to marry now and I want to complete my studies."

Her grandmother was angry, refusing to speak to her for months, but has since come to understand.

Door-to-door education

After school three days a week, Bashir goes door to door to meet parents in her neighborhood. She focuses on around 1,500 families.

"The parents should know that children have some rights too," she says. "I am planning to convince politicians to bring amendments in marriage policy and then implement the law against child marriages and punish the parents who marry their children at early ages."

Bashir knocks at one door and a man old enough to be her father answers. She politely asks him if he has a young daughter and he says yes. She gently talks to him about the negative impacts of child marriages.

He thanks her for the information, looking surprised to see a young girl doing this.

With the support of her father, Bashir created a group called Girls United for Human Rights. Today she is speaking to around 15 children in Mingora, telling them a story about a girl who says she would rather die rather than marry at a young age.

Nusrat Jan, who is just 13, is living that nightmare. She ran away from home to escape her marriage to a 51-year-old man and is now living in a cramped room in her aunt's house.

"I would prefer to drink poison than be married to him," Jan says. "I don't know what will happen to me now. I am ready for death."

Bashir's campaign against marriages like Jan's is difficult, and her voice is a lonely one. A 2014 UNICEF report found that 7% percent of girls in Pakistan younger than 15 are married. And 40% of Pakistani girls are married before they are 18.

Not far from Bashir's village, Sajjid Khan is planning the marriage of his 9-year-old son to a 5-year-old girl. "I know the girl is too young to marry to my son and so does my son, but I want to see them married soon," he says. "They will spend one night together and then she can go home to her family until she reaches puberty."

The child bride's father, Wasim Jan, wanted to hold off for five years but eventually agreed to doing it now. "He did not want to wait that long," he says of the other father. "He was worried that after five years we would change our minds. In the end, I have accepted his proposal."

Bashir hopes that her generation will be the last to suffer the devastating effects of this practice. "I don't think men will bring changes in customs of child marriages," she says. "It is time for women to stand up for their rights, and I ensure you that the new generation, my generation and my group, will play a role to bring positive changes and will stop child marriages in the area."

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