Four-year-old Asma was offered as compensation to settle a dispute involving murder by her uncle some years ago. The custom called Swara in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is rampant also by other names in all provinces of Pakistan. Only in this case her father and brother opposed the resolve of the jirga or the tribal council, to hand over Asma. While they paid with their lives, her family continues to fight and managed to resist this heinous practice. These young girls are given away in marriage and often ill-treated and abused.

Documentary film maker and human rights activist Samar Minallah Khan has made films on the subject and also filed a landmark public interest litigation plea in the Supreme Court and over 110 cases of Swara, Vanni as it is called in the Punjab or Sang Chatti in Sindh were heard leading to punitive action. The apex court ruled that the police should take action and stop such incidents and file cases against those who did. In some of the cases she has filmed and documented, it is the men in the families who have opposed the young girls being given away in compensation for a crime committed by male family members. “These men are the real feminists here and in some cases in Sindh, the police and journalists took up the matter,” she said at a screening of her films on International Women’s Day on Saturday.

Lawyer and anthropologist Humaira Masihuddin said that whenever there is a fight or someone is in debt, they give away young girls as compensation. It is not the custom but it is embedded in customary law and it is very tough to challenge deeply ingrained practices. Swara is a deep-rooted manifestation of misogyny, she said and is a feature of all cultures which assign gender roles to women. It comes from the mindset and time- honoured notions of ownership and honour. “The woman is an object. Where does honour go when a three-year-old girl is given away to settle a crime?” she asked.

Though the Pakistan Penal Code was amended to make swara and similar practices a crime punishable with a maximum penalty of 10 years, the practice continues. Former minister and Parliamentarian Dr. Attiya Inayatullah said that the jirga is not in the Constitution or in Islam and it is time for a law that removes women and children from the domain of the jirga. “You cannot have a parallel legal system to take decisions of this nature,” she pointed out.

The law had criminalised such practices but the jirga was a major obstacle in implementing it, she added. The Prevention of Anti-Women Practices (Criminal Law Amendment) Act 2011 had criminalised practices like swara and vanni but reduced the sentence.