Students mobilise communities about underage marriage, pregnancy

HYDERABAD:12 November: Although a law penalising underage marriages has been enacted in Sindh, lukeware enforcement and sensitisation, mainly of the rural society, to adverse consequences of marrying children still prevails.

While the provincial government claims to be training government officers about the law, three non-governmental organisations (NGOs) engaged school-going students to mobilise their communities.
Rutgers Pakistan, Sindh Agriculture Forestry Workers Coordination Organisation and Plan International on Saturday shared the achievements of these students, dubbed ‘Kiran’, at an event in Hyderabad.

The NGOs have registered around 10,000 students in 15 government schools in Sanghar and Umerkot districts to disseminate information to the communities about repercussions of early marriages and underage pregnancy.

Over the last two years these students reached out to the parents and their peers, trying to dissuade the former from marrying children and educating the latter about their rights.

“Our objective is to help reduce child marriages and underage pregnancy by means of assigning students [between grades eight and 10] the task of creating awareness,” said Rutgers Pakistan Assistant Programme Officer Shahmeer Hameed.

According to him, a 60-page book briefly explaining gender, violence, physical changes during adolescence, health and hygiene are being taught to all Kirans, which include both female and male students. They are given a toolkit for extracurricular activities for their out of school age-mates, he added.

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Each Kiran has to educate 10 persons while a kiran plus, which are selected among the best performing students, are tasked to mobilise 50 persons each. Hameed said that they aimed to cover all schools in Sanghar and Umerkot districts by 2020 under the ongoing five-year programme.

Women Development Secretary Mudassar Iqbal said that the government has been training policemen, lawyers and judicial officers for the enforcement of the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act, 2013. “The real work is being done by the NGOs, which are reaching out to the communities and young people to sensitise them about the issue.”

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Offering government’s support to the three NGOs, the secretary asked them to expand their project to Larkana, Kashmore, Kandhkot and other upper districts of Sindh where prevalence of child marriages is higher.

MNA Shazi Atta Marri of the Pakistan Peoples Party said the issue of early marriages is very close to her heart. “I was married when I was 15 years old. I wish this awareness had existed then,” she said.
Marri attributed her early marriage to culture and conventional notions. “[But] I am a survivor of early marriage not a victim,” she added.

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She believed that educating a young person about the implications of early marriage is less important than helping the parents and the society realise the flip side. Highlighting the Act’s enforcement problem, she said that she was recently invited to a marriage which she decided not to attend because the couple was under 18 years of age. “But I did not get the parents arrested,” said Marri.

She advised the NGOs to translate the book in Sindhi language as a majority of rural populations could not read Urdu. The MNA also recommended making the book more precise and seek local government representatives’ engagement in the programme. “You need to improve networking and take the programme to the grass root level,” she said. Express News.