Every culture represents a fusion of normative practices, customs, values and taboos. Collectively, they reflect the societal mindset. As Aristotle once said, “Man is by nature a social animal.” Humans are driven by their need to fulfill their roles on Earth; to find a purpose, achieve greatness, do something. Throughout history, behavioral patterns trickled down like rain, forming ripples in the shape of practices which formed tides of cultural norms. And we, the local people, became surfers, carried by the tides. As citizens of Pakistan, we take pride in how well we surf by promoting our culture. However, not all customs and traditions being practiced are worthy of praise. Unfortunately, the tide also carries sharks.
According to a Reuters survey, Pakistan ranked as the “sixth most dangerous and fourth worst in terms of economic resources and discrimination as well as the risks women face from cultural, religious and traditional practices” in the world for women. Acts of gender-based violence (GBV) include, inter alia, sexual violence and harrasment, intimate partner violence, domestic violence, harmful traditional practices e.g. forced marriage, ‘honour’ killings, and other discriminatory practices based on gender.
In 2021, 26,134 cases of violence against women, 19,271 of kidnapping of women, 4,660 of rape, and 822 of domestic violence were reported only in Punjab, Sindh and Islamabad. Even then, these figures do not depict the ground reality as a lot of women hesitate to report incidents of violence due to fear, lack of opportunity and blackmail.
In relation to harmful traditional practices, statistics are harder to find since they are significantly under-reported. This is largely because they are considered a part of normative culture and accepted as ordinary in society. This article will assess some of the cultural forms of gender-based violence in Pakistan, how they operate and whether or not they are prohibited by law.
The Pashto word, also written as ghagh or ghak, roughly means a call, proclamation or announcement, either by words spoken or written or by visible representation or by other means, made by a male member of the community to invoke a marriage claim on young girls and women. This is usually done by open firing with a gun in the air but can also be done via messengers.
The KP Provincial Assembly unanimously enacted the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Elimination of Custom of Ghag Act 2013 (Ghag Act) to criminalize the custom. The Ghag Act is brief and to the point, with a total of nine provisions dealing with both its substantive and procedural elements. The statute elucidates ghag as: “[A] custom, usage, tradition or practice whereby a person forcibly demands or claims the hand of a woman, without her own or her parents’ or wali’s will and free consent, by making an open declaration either by words spoken or written or by visible representation.”
A key factor to note is that despite being prohibited, the practice is only unlawful within the province of KP. This paves the way for it to be practiced without repercussions of the law elsewhere in the country. Prior to the 2018 merger of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in north Pakistan, the Ghag Act had no jurisdiction there despite the fact that the practice was extremely prevalent. On one occasion, the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) received information that a family was forced to migrate from their ancestral home in FATA due to the invocation of ghag by a man.
Badl-e-Sulha, Swara, Wanni, Sung Chatti
The custom of Badla-e-sulha—a form of forced marriage—is recognised by several names i.e. Wanni or Vani, Swara, and Sung Chatti depending on where you are situated in the country. These types of marriages involve girls being given as compensation to aggrieved parties as reparation for crimes committed by their male relatives. The crimes can include murder, kidnapping, fornication or adultery, and even the settlement of debts. This allows criminals to go unpunished with the unfortunate consequence of girls having to pay the price for the remainder of their lives.Importantly, after an amendment in the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC), Section 310A of the PPC prohibited the custom.
Under the standards of international law, such marriages constitute both forced and early marriages. UNICEF estimates that one in five girls are married before the age of 18 while UNFPA believes that number stands as one in three in Pakistan. Compensation marriages are clear violations of fundamental rights under the Constitution, penal laws of the country, as well as international human rights laws.
After its criminalization, there has been some progress. For instance, in 2005, three sisters who were teenagers, refused to be exhanged in Wanni to save their paternal uncle who had committed murder was sentenced to death by a jirga. A complaint was filed by the sisters in the Supreme Court (SC) where they availed justice by escaping the marriages.
Likewise, in 2006, the SC ordered the arrest of a parliamentarian, Mir Hazar Khan Bijarani, who was allegedly involved in a jirga decision where five minor girls, all under the age of six, were handed over in marriage to resolve a murder dispute. Under similar circumstances in Balochistan in 2008, 15 underage girls were offered in marriage to settle a tribal dispute that began with the killing of a dog.
Bride Price or Sarpaisa
Bride price or sarpaisa, a tradition which is believed to be 3000 years older than dowry, is when the groom (alone or with his family) pays consideration to the bride’s family in any form such as livestock, money, commodities, or other valuables. This wedding payment is not paid to the bride but to her parents or family in exchange for the future labour inputs of their daughter and her unborn children. Sarpaisa is considered a form of trafficking and objectifies the bride through economic value, devoid of emotions or feelings. The troubling aspect of this custom is that the bride can actually be sold and resold for a higher price: the higher her value, the more ‘honor’ her family gains. For example, M was married to her cousin for PKR 50,000, however, her husband resold her for PKR 150,000.
Predominantly found in Sindh and Punjab as Addo Bado and Watta Satta respectively, the practice involves a marriage where brides are exchanged between two families. It is viewed as a way to cement ties between families because it usually involves endogamous marriages. For example, a girl or woman from family A is married to a boy or man from family B, and a girl or woman from family B is married to a boy or man from family A. Often, a suitable match is not available and so the marriage takes place under duress.
The practice is widespread in one of the federally administered northern areas at 17.5 percent, followed by Punjab at 13.5 percent, Balochistan at 12.5 percent North West Frontier Province/Federally Administered Tribal Area at 12 percent and Azad Jammu and Kashmir at 8.5 percent. Additionally, if one marriage fails, the other spouses are pressured to dissolve their marriage as well.
It is clear that several customary practices that cause GBV are widespread in Pakistan. The law does not afford adeqaute protection from all cultural sharks that exist. Although Badla-e-Sulha is one of the few practices that are criminalized under the PPC and Ghag is prohibited by a specific act, the criminalization of the practice is limited solely to KP, while Watta Satta and Sarpaisa go unnoticed by the legal system. In terms of raising awareness and creating an atmosphere where victims can challenge and gain redress for the abuses that they face, Pakistan needs a more inclusive framework that works towards resolving and prohibiting harmful practices that cause GBV through better law enforcement, judicial recourseand awareness campaigns. For the people, the legal system is like life support, it must protect us from the sharks and keep us from drowning.
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 Sustainable Social Development Organization (SSDO), ‘Tracking Numbers: State of Violence Against Women & Children: Comparative Analysis 2020 vs 2021 Punjab, Sindh and Islamabad’ (2021) available at: <https://www.ssdo.org.pk/_files/ugd/5668b5_b4b6316f695f4cb1adf366ecccd1c022.pdf> accessed 1 June 2022.
 Definition of Ghag (lawinsider.com) available at: <https://www.lawinsider.com/dictionary/ghag#:~:text=Ghag%20means%20a%20custom%2C%20usage,representation%20or%20by%20other%20means.> accessed 1 June 2022.
 Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Elimination of Custom of Ghag Act 2013, s 2(1).
 Asian Human Rights Commission, ‘Pakistan: Call to Abolish Ghag, a Tribal Custom, That Had Ruined Lives of Many Girls’ (humanrights.asia) (5 May 2016) <http://www.humanrights.asia/news/urgent-appeals/AHRC-UAC-040-2016/> accessed 13 June 2022.
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 Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child. 2018. The State of Pakistan’s Children: Introduction and Overview of Child Rights. p. 13
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 Declan Walsh, ‘15 Child Brides Used to Settle Pakistan Feud’ The Guardian (5 June 2008) available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2008/jun/05/pakistan.humanrights> accessed 1 June 2022.
 Milla Nyyssola, ‘Bride Price or Dowry?’ UNU-Wider (March 2022) available at: <https://www.wider.unu.edu/publication/bride-price-or-dowry> accessed 1 June 2022.
 Samar Minallah, ‘Bride for Sale’ Newsline Magazine (2003) available at: <https://newslinemagazine.com/magazine/bride-for-sale/> accessed 1 June 2022.
 Footnote 6.
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 Footnote 6.