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Last-Minute Reprieve For Pakistani Child Bride


Family Pleads To Save 6-Year-Old From Forced Marriage
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WATCH: The parents and uncle of 6-year-old Bibi Roza in Pakistan's Swat Valley are begging the government to intervene after tribal authorities ordered them to marry her off to resolve a family feud. (Video by RFE/RL Radio Mashaal's Niaz Ahmad Khan)

ASHARI, Pakistan -- A 6-year-old Pakistani girl who faced being married off to settle a family feud appears to have had a last-minute reprieve.

The parents of Bibi Roza had been ordered by village elders in Pakistan's Swat Valley to marry her off on November 11 under a practice known as "swara."

But a court in the town of Saidu Sharif has now ruled the decision by the "jirga" assembly illegal and police have made five arrests in the case, RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal reports.

The moves come after Bibi Roza's parents made a last-ditch plea for help to stop the wedding going ahead.

In the remote, mountainous areas of northwest Pakistan, local feuds are commonly resolved in customary fashion rather than through common law.

Cases are deliberated by tribal elders gathered in an assembly called a jirga. In the event of a guilty verdict the guilty party is often ordered to compensate the victim by handing over land, money, livestock, or -- in keeping with the swara tradition -- an unmarried daughter.

The age-old tribal practice is seen as a way to peacefully settle even blood feuds, and is seldom challenged. The controversial ruling handed down last week by a jirga in Swat Valley is a rare exception.

In Bibi Roza's case, a jirga ordered that she be married off to a 16-year-old boy from a rival family in order to resolve an ongoing feud.

Avoiding Bloodshed?

Azim Khan, Bibi Roza's 65-year-old father, told RFE/RL earlier this week he made numerous pleas to tribal elders to reconsider their ruling, but with no success. He said the local police, who he accused of supporting the ruling, told him to accept the verdict.

Khan said if he were to refuse to allow the marriage, his disobedience would establish an "enmity" between the two families. And if that were to happen, he predicted, blood would likely flow as the other family sought to restore its honor.

"They [the jirga members] are telling us: 'You agreed with the authorities in Ashari to marry your daughter into the other family. You have no other option,'" Khan says. "Yes, I agreed. But the police officers forced me to agree. They are saying that she will be married this Sunday [November 11]. I have pleaded with them that I cannot let her marry."

Shah Dauran, the local police chief in Ashari, rejected Khan's claims, saying the police had no role in the jirga's decision. Furthermore, he added, the police launched a criminal investigation after the girl's age was revealed.

The five people who have now been arrested in connection with the case include three jirga members, plus the man who was planning to marry the girl and his father.

Question Of Family 'Honor'

The family feud that prompted the jirga decision revolves around Bibi Roza's sister-in-law. The woman, who has not been identified, recently married Bibi Roza's brother despite being engaged to another man. The woman's former fiance, after finding out about her marriage, took his grievance to the tribal elders.

In the course of the jirga, the man claimed his family's honor had been tarnished and his former fiance's marriage was illegal. He pleaded for a ruling that would both restore his family's pride and exact punishment on his ex-fiance’s family.

Swara, the practice of exchanging women and girls to settle personal feuds, is common in areas of northwestern Pakistan like Swat Valley, located in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

In 2004, the Pakistani parliament declared the practice a criminal offense punishable by a minimum of a three-year prison sentence. But the practice continues in regions where customary law and tradition remain strong.

Before the news on November 9 of a reprieve for her daughter, Bibi Roza's mother, who did not give her name, made this heartfelt plea.

"The other family wants this innocent child to observe the custom of swara. The elders have ruled that she must marry on Sunday," she said. "I have pleaded with them that she is only a child. I said, 'Don't take her away, she's only 6 years old.' All Muslims need to think about this. I have asked the government to help us so she can stay home, because she is only a minor.”

Written by Frud Bezhan based on reporting by RFE/RL Radio Mashaal correspondent Niaz Ahmad
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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the regional desk editor for Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2012, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

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