News / Asia

Pakistani Family Fights Tradition of Paying Giving Daughters to Settle Debts

Sharon Behn
In recent years Pakistan has passed laws protecting women against having acid thrown on their faces or being killed to satisfy the honor of a family. Despite being legally banned, abuses against women continue.  However, there are stories of individuals who stand up when the law fails them.

Asma was just four when her father refused to hand her over to another family. The family and tribal elders demanded she take the place of her sister, who had fled their home after being abused.
But her father refused to obey the tribal tradition called "swara" and was killed along with one of his sons in retaliation by the other family.
Widow Bakht Jana recalls the night tribal elders ruled that she give up her daughter.

"I was very angry and upset," said Jana.  "I cried a lot, and I was not willing to give my small child in swara. This is a cruel tradition followed by tribes for years and years. And I lost my husband and son for trying to put a stop to this."  

Jana and her remaining 11 children were forced to flee their village.  Her son Hafiz ur Rehman says "swara" has no place in Pakistan.

"The government can take action against this," said ur Rehman.  "If the government can conduct operations against terrorism, then why not against this? They can issue orders forbidding this tradition and the police should implement that decision in our villages."
Lawmaker Riaz Fatihana says the government has passed laws to protect women, but the problem lies at the local level.

"First, police [are] not cooperating with victims and they are reluctant to register cases freely," Fatihana explained.  "Secondly, courts take many years to announce judgment and meanwhile there is no protection to witnesses and families of victims."
The concept of women as property to be exchanged for debts is most prevalent in Pakistan's northwest and southwest tribal and feudal areas.
But professor of gender studies Farzana Bari says the concept of women as second class citizens is woven into the entire society.

"There is an economics of the gender status quo and gender hierarchies in society, and state does not actually want to change that, they have no will to do that," Bari noted.  "They do things very superficially, ok, legislation they will pass, but they will make sure those are not enforced properly."

Despite their hardships, Rehman says he is trying to convince others to stand up for their daughters' and sisters' rights, as his family did for Asma.

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