Farzana* is only 10 years old and works as a domestic helper in a house in Karachi. She lives with her maternal grandmother in a katchi abadi.
Almost all the women and girls, except a few, in her family work in the domestic help sector.
They travel on foot from the colony till the Mosamyat bus stop, and from there, depending on availability, get a qingqi to reach the flats and bungalows where they all work. The grandmother or Amma, as everyone calls her, is the head of the household, and decides work places for them.
Farzana, like any extroverted 10-year-old, is argumentative, talkative, energetic, and almost always in trouble because of talking back to one of her aunts. She often gets slapped and threatened by her 14-year-old aunt and caretaker Mariam*, for not working properly.
Mariam is a sickly teenager. She suffers from acid reflux, anaemia, and severe menstrual cramps. However, none of that can save her from the life of difficult labour that she has to survive to avoid being married and sent back to her village near Garhi Khuda Bux.
Garhi Khuda Bakhsh is a poor village in Ratodero Taluka near Naudero, Sindh. It is where the ancestral graveyard of the Bhutto family is, which houses the Taj Mahal-like mausoleum of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.
According to Amma, her Baloch-Sindhi family lives hand to mouth even after breaking their backs washing people’s clothes, cleaning their homes, and cooking for the elderly. And though the women are engaged in earning money for the whole family, decision-making still stays with the men, who prefer marrying off daughters as early as 12 or 14 years of age.
Men in her family do not work, which still does not deprive them of their male privilege of taking all the decisions about women, their life, and their bodies.
Mariam has been engaged to her paternal uncle’s son since she was born, and to avoid being sent to a village where there are no toilets, running water, or gas, her mother ensures that she continues bringing in money to feed the many mouths in the joint family. Amma has three sons and seven daughters.
One of Amma’s daughters, married at a young age of 13 to a man much older than her, suffers from severe seizures and other psychological problems. At 23, she has five sons and two daughters, who are also looked after by Amma.
“Her husband has taken a second wife, and though he beats both of them, he beats her more because she is not from his family. Once, he smashed her head to the wall and she became unconscious,” Mariam narrated the incident that changed her sister Kulsoom’s life forever. Doctor just keep giving medicines to try and keep her stable and ask to pray.
Kulsoom is pregnant again, and the doctor fears for her life, as well as the life of the unborn child. Amma and the sisters are devastated.
Mariam fears about her own future waiting in the dilapidated village. Owing to her allergies, she is worried about the prospect of preparing food on a traditional stove that uses sticks and firewood as fuel.
“I hope Amma continues to delay my marriage for as long as possible, I am too young to get married, but my father thinks it is the right time,” she shared her fears.
According to Girls Not Brides, 21 percent of girls in Pakistan are married before the age of 18. Often, the parents are forced to marry off daughters due to the fear of getting ostracised by the larger community. They also find protecting the ‘honour’ of the family a burdensome task, and so want to foist that duty on someone else.
Child marriage in Pakistan also involves the transfer of money, settlement of debts or exchange of daughters at times. In local language it is called vani/swara or watta satta, which is often sanctioned by a jirga or panchayat (council of community elders and influential people).
For now, Mariam is protected by her mother and a sister, who recently got married to a worker in Abu Dhabi. But she is not hopeful of successfully avoiding this fate for too long.
“Even if I am married off at 18, I will have to go back and live in the village and survive without all the basic amnesties that are available in the city,” Mariam said, while she matter-of-factly told about her 25-year-old fiancé, who beats his sisters habitually.
Note: Names and places have been changed for privacy and safety