Hadiqa Bashir was seven years old when one of her closest friends was promised in marriage by her parents. As a young child, Hadiqa’s first thoughts turned to the celebrations, the parties and the dresses for the ceremony. But the darker side of the situation began to emerge as she watched her friend, now engaged, banned from any form of play and from school. After the marriage, the friend began to show cuts, bruises and other signs of the violence inflicted by her new husband.
In the conservative Pakistani province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, girls live under a tribal and patriarchal system where the family honour rests on the chastity of its girls. Fearing sexual transgressions that threaten the family reputation, parents marry their daughters off as early as possible.
When Hadiqa turned 11, she received a marriage proposal but with the help of an uncle, she managed to avoid this fate. Countless others, however, continue to be forced into early marriage. They experience physical trauma and long-lasting psychological effects. According to UNICEF, 21 per cent of girls in Pakistan are married before the age of 18. Three per cent are married by their 15th birthday. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the country.
Based on experience, Hadiqa set up Girls United for Human Rights (GUHR) in 2014. Today, it is an all-girl organisation working to end child marriage and promote girls’ rights in the conservative north-western Swat Valley in Pakistan. GUHR works with adolescent girls and local stakeholders to promote girls’ rights, empowerment, school enrolment and safety. The organisation has developed educational materials for young girls to learn about their rights that it distributes in schools and publishes online. GUHR runs a media campaign to raise awareness and its members go door-to-door to engage with religious leaders, community elders, parents, grandparents, school teachers and legislators. It also addresses government and department representatives to try to change the mindset that allows for girls to marry at such a young age.
The organisation promotes theatre projects as a medium to educate and mobilise communities. This helps drive the message that girls have a right to health, education, elimination of all forms of violence and encourages community participation. GUHR is a strong girl-centred organisation whose activities are girl-led. It is successfully challenging the gender roles embedded by patriarchal systems in the conservative communities it works with and has reached over 5,000 girls in the process of its work.