Despite the placing on Pakistan's statute books of tougher laws against the practice of `swara' or the “giving away” of a woman to a rival party to settle a dispute, the tradition continues.
The women's rights advocacy organization Rahnuma, which guides victims, describes `swara' as a practice “where a girl is given as an offering to `settle' a conflict or dispute.” The practice is most common in Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa Province (KP) and the southern Punjab, where it is known as `vani', but also takes place in other parts of the country.
A `swara' exchange can be used to settle murder, adultery (a crime under the law), kidnapping or another offence.
In 2004, parliament passed the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act under which amendments were made to the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) and the Pakistan Penal Code making `swara' and similar practices a crime. Section 310A, which covers the matter, was inserted in the PPC and reads: “Whoever gives a female in marriage or otherwise `badal-e-sulah' [in exchange for peace] shall be punished with rigorous imprisonment, which may extend to 10 years but shall not be less than three years.”
The legislative action came about at least in part due to awareness on the issue being raised by an award-winning 2003 documentary entitled Swara: Bridge Over Troubled Waters made by Samar Minallah, an activist and documentary film-maker who at the time also filed a public interest litigation case before the Supreme Court of Pakistan against `swara'. The case is continuing.
“Yes, the laws have helped but `swara', `vani' and similar practices still go on,” Minallah told IRIN. “Estimates based on newspaper reports indicate there are hundreds of cases each year. Of course, there are many others which do not get reported,” she said.
She also said that tougher laws and arrests made under them had “led to people disguising the handing over of a woman or girl. The deal is not announced within the community as a `swara' or `vani' marriage, though within the families concerned it is known that the woman has been given away as `swara' and is treated accordingly,” Minallah said.
While `swara' brides are wed to the men they are given to, these men are usually far older than the “brides”, who are often mere children.
The girls are also usually treated extremely badly or “like slaves”, according to Minallah, in the home of their in-laws.
Practices like `swara' continue here, in Dir and elsewhere because it takes more than laws to change the way people behave. Much more awareness and the general empowerment of women are needed, if we are to see real changeThere has since 2004 been a further toughening of the law. In December 2011 parliament passed a series of legislative measures aimed at improving the situation of women. One relevant clause states: “Forcing a woman into marriage for settling a dispute to be a non- bailable offence.”
The superior courts in the country have also taken up the matter with the Peshawar High Court noting that existing laws included in the PPC were insufficient, and directing the KP government to enact a special law to deal with the issue. The court was hearing a case filed by a plaintiff from Upper Dir District who said his father and brother had been killed for refusing to hand over his minor sister as `swara'.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court, which is hearing Minallah's petition, has said laws against the practice need to be implemented effectively.
Experts agree. Shaukat Salim, a lawyer and human rights activist based in Swat, told IRIN from Mingora, the principal city of the district: “Practices like `swara' continue here, in Dir and elsewhere because it takes more than laws to change the way people behave. Much more awareness and the general empowerment of women are needed, if we are to see real change.” He said many people in rural KP were not even aware of the laws and acted as they had for centuries.
Other “traditional” practices also harm women. According to the autonomous Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRPC), there were 943 “honour killings” in 2011. An “honour killing”, according to HRCP, involves the murder of a woman who is deemed to have let down her family, or “dishonoured” it in some way. This can involve an act such as alleged adultery, a marriage decided on by the woman herself or other trivial matters. Couples choosing to wed by choice frequently end up having to go on the run, as in a recent case reported in the media from Karachi in June this year.
The kinds of threat women face was illustrated by a recent case from the remote Kohistan District of KP where four women were sentenced to death by a local `jirga' (gathering of tribal elders) after being caught on video clapping as two men unrelated to them danced at a wedding. The matter was taken up by the Supreme Court, which sent out two fact-finding missions to the Pattan area in Kohistan. Farzana Bari, a women's rights activist who formed a part of both missions told the media “she could not endorse” the identity of the women she had been shown. Many questions still remain over the matter.
“Custom” or “tradition” also works against women in other ways.
According to figures presented at a seminar in Karachi by the Family Planning Association of Pakistan, 30 percent of all marriages in the country are child marriages though the law bars the marriage of a girl under 16 or a boy under 18. Civil society organizations have been demanding major reforms to the law which dates back to 1929.
“I was married when I was 11. I lost my childhood forever, but times must change and I will not allow my three daughters to be married off before they are adults,” said Sadiqa Bibi, a washerwoman and mother of five by the time she was 20.