Breaking the cycle of child marriage
How UNICEF's intervention empowered a mother to rescue her daughter from child marriage
Swabi, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa - Bus Bibi resides with her husband and children in the quaint village of Danduna surrounded by green hills and traditional mud houses. They live in an Afghan Refugee settlement called Gandaf, established almost 30 years ago.
Bus Bibi, now around 40 years old, has eight children with her 75-year-old husband, Mohammad Ashiq. Her oldest daughter, Aqeela, is 14 and studies in class five. When she was born, she was betrothed to her cousin (Bus Bibi’s nephew). As per tradition, they formalized her engagement about 18 months ago, when she was 12. This year, Aqeela was set to be married to her fiancé.
“I was going along with what my parents wanted,” says Aqeela shyly. It’s not common for girls to contest their parents’ decisions in this community.
In September 2022, a team from UNICEF’s implementing partner CERD (Centre of Excellence for Rural Development) visited Danduna and observed various child protection issues in the communities, including child marriage and child labour. After gaining the trust of the community and with guidance from UNICEF, the team started counselling the community members and organized communities through Child Protection Committees (CPC) in the area. Their efforts soon had a positive impact on the communities.
Bus Bibi joined the committee last year and soon became a proactive member. Through the counselling and training she received, she quickly came to realize that if her daughter married so young, she was going to experience lifelong negative consequences.
“I learned that child marriage harms the child’s mental and physical health,” shares Bus Bibi.
“I realized that Aqeela would have to give up her education if she was married right now, and I didn’t want that for her.”
Bus Bibi first spoke to her husband. He too was convinced and shared her growing concerns for their daughter.
“When Bus told me that Aqeela is too young right now, and we’ll marry her at 20, I agreed. Because I remembered when Bus and I were married, and even though she was 18, she wasn’t capable of running the household,” says Mohammad Ashiq. He married Bus Bibi after his first wife was unable to bear any children. “I had to be patient with her for a few years as she made mistakes, so I felt it was not right to ask this of my daughter.”
Bus Bibi faced a lot of pressure and criticism from relatives and friends for making this decision. She faced it head-on and silenced the critics. “I made it clear that I know what is best for my daughter. I want her to complete high school and be an adult before she is married.”
Aqeela says she was relieved when she learned that her mother had delayed her wedding.
“I’m not ready for the responsibilities of being a wife or having children right now, so I’m happy my mother took this decision for me,” she says. She enjoys English and Urdu and wants to be a teacher when she grows up.
“I’ve learned that girls and boys have the same rights, and boys don’t get to have more education or rights than girls,” says Aqeela.
Raheela Naz has been working with the communities in Danduna as a Child Protection Monitor since last year. She is impressed by Bus Bibi’s community and their openness to challenge harmful traditions.
“In a short time, they took ownership of the CPC and became quite organized with regular meetings. They identify child protection issues with representatives from neighbouring communities, create action plans and address them,” she says.
Bus Bibi has become a local role model. She is sending six of her eight children to school and runs a small business making tandoors (clay ovens) on order. Whenever she goes to meet her friends and relatives, she shares the lessons she has learned from the CPCs and encourages others to send their children to school. She regularly refers pregnant and lactating women to visit the local hospital rather than relying on unsafe home deliveries.
"The people say that if Bus Bibi, who is so poor, can do all this, then why can't we?" she states proudly.
The CPCs have helped other mothers in the community as well. Noreena is the CPC President of Gandaf and leads the meetings. “We used to think that our children working would help us financially but having them enrolled in school is more beneficial for us,” she says.
UNICEF’s child protection interventions in Afghan Refugee settlements like Gandaf, were made possible with the financial support of the people and the Government of Netherlands. Investing in community-based mechanisms has empowered local champions to address issues like child abuse and neglect, child marriage and labour. So far, the 24 active Child Protection Committees in four districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province have reached over 200,000 community members. Communities in Swabi, Peshawar, Kohat and Haripur districts have acquired essential knowledge concerning child protection. This has resulted in more than 1,200 individuals (117 men, 176 women, 501 boys and 430 girls) accessing critical social and protection services including legal assistance and psychosocial support.
Bus Bibi’s determination to save her daughter from child marriage, defying tradition, proves that interventions like these make a significant difference in the lives of children and families across Pakistan.