In my travels in the border villages of KPK doing the impact assessment of the Women Economic Empowerment and Market Development Project by Sarhad Rural Development Programme I listened to many stories of perseverance and courage from the women participants but in a border village in District Charsadda I came across a story which rattled me to my core.
The only reason that I am going to share it is with a hope that perhaps some decision maker in the government might read it and realise how much effort is still needed in KPK to educate the society and strict laws and implementation are a must for women protection.
The story might even be upsetting to some readers but it will prove, once again, the resilience of human spirit and show what miracles a little love and care can perform.
The story is of a thirty year old woman, Nageen, whom I met in the Women Center in her village where the women participants had gathered to share their stories. She had been the part of the SRSP projects for several years and currently runs a tailoring center. She told me that her products are being sent to boutiques in Peshawar and Islamabad and she earns a good living now. I praised her efforts but little did I know that behind this success was a tale of utter horror. She smiled half a smile at me and said, “ Would you write my story also?” and I said I would and then she said, “ but you will not like it”. I urged her to go on . “ I was the most unfortunate girl ever. I was given in ‘Swara’ when I was eleven years old“, slowly she began her story . “I cannot recall much about that fateful day when I returned home from school. Everything seems hazy. I was too upset to remember the details. My mother was crying and my father was almost hysterical and talking loudly. There were a lot of people at our place; relatives and neighbours and I did not know what was going on. When my father saw me he came towards me quickly and told me that I had to leave my home and go with some strangers because that was what was decided by the ‘jirga’. He told me that it was a matter of his honour. I quickly took a step backwards and refused. I would not go with any stranger or leave my home but my father pulled me by my arm, shook it hard and told me that there was no choice for me. I had to go or else my brother would be killed by the same men”, said Nageen.
By now the tears were rolling down her cheeks , as she remembered what happened to her fifteen years ago. “ I cried and begged my parents and could not understand anything and yet I was forcibly handed over to complete strangers. I was devastated as they took me from my home and brought me here in this village as a trophy which they had won. I was just an object for them and on their return they handed me over to a woman. She seemed kind and offered me food and a place to sleep in her room. I survived because of that woman. I cried myself to sleep that night and many many more nights to come for a long time afterwards.” Nageen could hardly go on.
Nageen is one of the many victims of an old custom in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa called ‘Swara’ where young girls were given away as compensation for settling any dispute between two families. The aggrieved party claims a young girl as compensation for any alleged damages to their ‘‘honour’ and the local ‘jirga or council of local men’ decide about it. The decision of jira is considered binding on both parties.
Nageen had an older brother who was allegedly seen talking to a girl in the village. That became a major issue as the father of the girl raised hue and cry and claimed that his honour had been tarnished and demanded compensation or else he would kill the boy. The compensation he demanded was that the boy would have to marry his daughter and Nageen would be handed over to his son.
To an educated and enlightened person this case and the nature of allegation would sound ludicrous and he would probably think that the men must be crazy to even consider this as a serious complaint but crazy as it sounds, it was seriously considered to be a matter of honour. The ‘jirga’ decided that it was a fair exchange and that Nageen’s brother would marry the girl he talked to and that Nageen would be handed over to the girl’s brother who was himself a sixteen year old boy. The fact that nobody thought it was a heinous crime is in itself a tragedy.
For four years Nageen lived in the new house without having any status. Nobody seemed to be aware of her existence. When she turned fourteen, she was handed over to her ‘husband’ so that she could share his bed. There was no marriage, not even any ritual or token ceremony to be called a marriage. Nageen just graduated from a servant to a ‘wife’. Her parents never came to see her, she was not allowed to ever go to their house. She said that she did not have any wish to see them.
After two more years Nageen gave birth to a son and the next year to another son. That was a change which made her position slightly better but she still had no money, no resources and no status. She said that she lived in shame and suffered from anxiety. Four years back she heard from a neighbour about the SRSP WEEMD project for loans to women decided that she wanted to join. She was smart and intelligent and semi skilled in stitching and embroidery.
Women Economic Empowerment and Market Development Project was exactly designed for young women who wanted to do some kind of work to earn a living and bring a positive change in their lives. Nageen was the perfect candidate. She jumped at the opportunity and SRSP team helped and supported her and reassured her husband to give her permission.
Nageen was allowed to come and learn stitching and tailoring and in just a few months she was getting orders and started to earn money. For the first time in her life she felt as if she was a person and was alive. “ I was always treated like dirt. My in laws always said that I was given up in Swara and had no dowry and nobody ever came to see me or inquire about me and that hurt the worst” she said wiping the tears from her eyes. “for no fault of my own, I was reduced to a lesser human by my parents and this family. I don’t know what my brother did but whatever it was I was sacrificed to protect him and then was forgotten about” said Nageen.
I cannot imagine the pain of a child living with knowledge of the brutal act of her parents, jirga and the other family who slapped this destiny on her and felt no remorse. I could not believe that there were people still present in this society in this age, who regarded ‘Swara’ as an actually thing and a fair deal?. I could not fathom any of it and the more I think about it the more absurd, horrific and sick it becomes but then the fact is that it did happen to Nageen and many men and women in that society were part of that heinous crime.
This story is also a real question mark on the prevalent law in KPK as to how cases like these are still occurring without being reported to authorities.
In this environment and society the work done by SRSP in WEEMD project is nothing less than extraordinary. For the first time in the border districts of khyber Pakhtunkhwa, they had reached out to women, to provide them support, easy interest free loans and vocational training which opened vistas for them and gave them a new lease on life.
It was not easy to deal with Nageen because she would often break down in tears but slowly and gradually with the support of the project team she made friends and gained confidence. She progressed rather quickly and produced very good quality work which was soon in demand by boutiques. In just three years Nageen had come a long way from the scared, awkward girl to a young businesswoman. Today Nageen is a successful entrepreneur and she has now developed linkages with boutiques in Nowshera and Peshawar with the help of SRSP where she regularly supplies handicrafts and ready made dresses. She has many women working for her and she is happy to be doing a lot of work and earning money.
When it was time for me to leave I got up and hugged her, “ I am no longer the Nageen that was given up in Swara”, she said, “I am the Nageen who has many friends and who can take care of herself and her children”. The impact of the project was right there in front of me.
—The writer is a Social Development Professional, Environmentalist and a writer based in Lahore