The Teenager Breaking Up Child Marriages, Door to Door - OZY | A Modern Media Company
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WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because she's keeping 7-year-olds in school and out of abusive situations.

By Pallabi Munsi

  • Hadiqa Bashir, 18, has broken up 10-15 child weddings in Pakistan’s Swat Valley, and convinced several local imams to speak out against child marriage.
  • Now she’s preparing for a career as a lawyer, to tackle a persistent problem in a country with no federal law against child marriage.

It was almost her wedding day, and a 9-year-old girl in Pakistan’s Swat Valley was getting ready for a life full of compromises, from running a household to figuring out ways to sexually satisfy a husband in his late 20s. An elder sister whose eyes were always forlorn had revealed that her husband used to whip her and that she had even thought of ending her life. 

The night before the girl’s wedding, fate intervened. Now, just like other 12-year-olds, she goes to school, plays with her friends and is more vocal about her rights.

None of it would have been possible had Hadiqa Bashir not spent hours dissuading the girl’s parents from getting her married. “It was difficult, as the family did not have enough money to send the girl to a school and thought marriage was the best option to keep the girl healthy and alive,” says Bashir, now 18, of the conversation three years ago. She had to promise them that her grassroots organization, Girls United for Human Rights, would arrange for the girl’s books and school uniform. 

For the past seven years, the young activist who’s now preparing for her law entrance exam has made it her mission to ensure there’s no child marriage in her area by going door to door and urging girls to finish their education. She has so far been able to break off 10-15 weddings and convince five of the 25 imams in the region to talk about the problematic situation created by child marriages — while earning a slew of international humanitarian awards and being invited to the Pakistani Senate to talk about the issue. 

My family thought it was a good match. But I fought against [the] decision and even threatened them with legal consequences.

Hadiqa Bashir, on an attempted marriage when she was 11

When we chat, Bashir’s voice is filled with a nonchalant and childish enthusiasm, and yet there is something omniscient about the way she speaks. After all, the girl from Pakistan’s Swat Valley, known for its authoritarian Taliban regime until just a few years ago, has “seen and been through a lot.”

For Bashir, a resident of Mingora, the fight is personal. “And as they say, personal is political,” she tells me. Just a year after the Swat Valley made global headlines when a Taliban gunman shot 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai, Bashir was struggling with her own problems: Her grandmother wanted to get her married, in line with local tradition, to a local taxi driver. Bashir was 11 years old.

“My family thought it was a good match. But I fought against her decision and even threatened them with legal consequences. It was a hard time but I had to do it,” she says matter of factly. 

Every year, 12 million girls marry before the age of 18 — nearly one girl every three seconds. Child marriage happens across countries, cultures and religions. In Pakistan, 18.3 percent of girls are married before age 18, and 3.6 percent are married before they turn 15, according to UNICEF. Shipra Jha, the Asia head of Girls Not Brides, a London-based global partnership of 1,000-plus civil society organizations committed to ending child marriage, says the rates are declining in South Asia, but “we must keep in mind that their lives haven’t improved much.” 

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Bashir (R), shown at No Quiero, a conference in Spain organized by Save the Children in 2019, has earned global recognition for her advocacy.

For Bashir, it was a friend’s wedding when they were just 7 that triggered her confidence that this practice was wrong. “When my friend got married, we thought it was going to be like a dolls’ wedding,” she says. “It was all fun and games for us. But soon she disappeared from school, and she told us her husband used to beat her up. I was scared beyond belief.”

She had backup within her family, though. Her father, aunt and uncle are known as human rights champions, support other girls don’t have. Qamar Naseem, a child rights activist from Blue Veins, an organization in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of northwest Pakistan, points out that the country has no federal law against child marriage — leaving uneven local laws, some of which impose minimal fines for the parents of child brides.

That’s the reason for the next phase of Bashir’s activism. She plans to become a lawyer “so that I can bring about a legal change in the system,” she says, her voice indignant. But, she chirps, she is also working on a new and special project. “I am collaborating with others to write and art a comic book through which I want to talk to everyone about women’s struggle, and especially focus on menstruation. The idea is everyone will be interested in comics, so why not teach them about things that matter through it.”

Until then, she has other ways to make their voices heard. Sometimes, she performs skits in different localities to help people understand the issue and other times she takes on the religious leaders and legislators. When an imam refused to speak with a girl, she sent a boy from her organization in her place. When another one brought up that the Hadith states how Prophet Muhammad married Aisha when she was just 6 years old and he was in his 50s, consummating the bond when she was 9, Bashir shot back that the prophet never mistreated her, unlike many of the men of the Swat Valley.

It’s a complicated problem to tackle. A study by Naseem and his colleagues at Blue Veins found the reasons behind child marriage to be a complex milieu of culture, religion and poverty. The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the country’s economy hard and led many to pull girls out of school, with anecdotal reports indicating a spike in child marriage. That makes Bashir’s task only harder, especially when you consider her 10-person organization operates with almost no funding.

Yet Bashir is unafraid. “I will not stop what I’ve started,” she says. “Because it’s personal. It’s about my sisters.”

OZY’s 5 Questions With Hadiqa Bashir

  • What was the last book you read? The Wheel of Time.
  • What worries you the most? Everything. I’m a very sensitive person so I overthink everything.
  • What’s one thing you can’t live without? Air, I suppose?
  • Who’s your hero? My dad. The way he’s struggled for me; I don’t think anyone would ever do that. In fact, he even collects scraps and sells them to get money when he didn’t have a job so that I can keep studying.
  • What’s on your bucket list? I really want to go to Paris and Umrah [Mecca] with my family or partner. But in a longer term, I want to see a change in the way the world works.


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