Married In The Desert: Dalit Child Brides Of Tharparkar

Six years after the Sindh Hindu Marriage Act was enacted, it has failed to have the desired impact. Scheduled Caste Hindus in the impoverished, famished Tharparkar continue to marry their daughters young at the risk of their health and that of their children

Married In The Desert: Dalit Child Brides Of Tharparkar

At a small hut at the foot of a large desert dune near the town of Diplo in the southeastern district of Tharparkar, a mother of two slowly feels her life ebbing away. She was an early teenager when she had her first child. She then had a second child but has now lost her third child and could soon lose her life.

Kamla Kolhi*, hailing from the impoverished, Hindu 'scheduled cast' Dalit, lost her unborn child a few months ago while working in the fields. She recalled how she suddenly started to bleed. Her in-laws rushed her to a nearby hospital, where a doctor here remarked that she had bled so much that it would be a miracle if she survived. What confounds her more than losing her unborn child is how she is still alive. But Kolhi is one of the lucky ones to have survived despite being a teen bride in the Hindu community of Sindh. Most of Tharparkar's population consists of various communities, including Muslims and Hindus, spread over castes and tribes. Dalits, who are classified among scheduled castes, are historically the most impoverished and disadvantaged in terms of social status and access to resources among Hindus. 

"I was 14 years old when I got married to my then 24-year-old husband," Kolhi says, adding that she used to study in the eighth grade at a school in Diplo when she was married. After her marriage, she had to give up her studies and settle in her husband's home.

According to the Annual Status of Education Report 2021, around 20% of children aged between six and 16 years are out of school in Tharparkar (Mithi), with girls making up 12% while boys making up the remaining 8%. The percentage of out-of-school children rises sharply from 4.2% (never enrolled) and 6.7% (drop-outs) between the ages of six to ten, to 9.1% (never enrolled) and 9.3% (drop-outs) for children between 11-13 and then to 16.1% (never enrolled)and 14.8% (drop-outs) for children between 14-16 years of age.

When Kolhi was married, she was so young that she couldn't understand the affairs of married life. Her husband would frequently beat her. As she came to grips with being the victim of domestic violence, Kolhi became the mother of a girl. Like other mothers and children in the district, she and her daughter did not get sufficient nutrition or care during her pregnancy. Her young age impacted her ability to properly care for herself and her baby. As a result, their health deteriorated.

Around 89.18% of children between the ages of six and 59 months suffer from global acute malnutrition (GAM), with 69.42% suffering from medium acute malnourishment (MAM) and 19.76% suffering from severe acute malnourishment (SAM).

"I have been forced to act much older than my age," said Kolhi. "Every morning, I wake up and clean the house, care for the cattle, and walk four kilometres to fetch drinking water. I spend the rest of the day working in the fields," she added.

Child or early marriage is a serious problem in Pakistan, which has grave repercussions for child brides and the children they bear later. According to a United Nations report, one out of every three girls in Pakistan is married before they turn 18.

Speaking to The Friday Times, Gynecologist Dr Hem Pushpa said the consequences of early marriage are far-reaching. She said that it affects not only the health of the young girls who become mothers but also their entire lives. She added that early marriages push young women into poverty, and the limited opportunities for education result in limited employment and increased maternal and neonatal mortality.

A UNICEF country profile from 2024 notes that the neonatal mortality rate for mothers younger than 20 years of age is 79 per 1,000 live births; this is 1.5 times higher than for mothers between 20-29 years of age, which stands at 52 per 1,000 live births. 

A World Bank fact-sheet from 2022 noted that Sindh has higher levels of pregnancy-related deaths at 345 per 100,000 live births, while maternal mortality sits at 224 per 100,000 live births, while its under-five mortality is at 77%, higher than the national average of 74%. 

"Around 90% of births among teenagers are due to complications from early marriage and pregnancies, while childbirth is one of the leading causes of death among girls aged 15-19," said Dr Pushpa. UNICEF says newborns with less educated mothers are 2.4 times more likely to die during the first month compared to those born to mothers with higher education 

She added that girls who are married before they turn 15 are 50% more likely to experience intimate partner violence than those who marry later. Teenaged brides also face barriers to accessing contraceptives or safe abortion practices. This reduces their options to limit or control their pregnancy.

Other barriers teenaged mothers face include judgment from healthcare providers and physical barriers such as the large distance to clinics or limited mobility.

"Many girls die during delivery," Dr Pushpa added.

In Pakistan, a colonial-era law (which impacted when the country's founder, Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, married) was adopted, which stipulated that boys must be at least 18 years of age while girls must be 16 years of age to marry. After the introduction of the 18th Amendment, marriage and family matters became subjects for individual provinces to govern, and they were required to legislate on it. In Sindh, where most of the country's Hindu population resides, the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act was introduced in 2013. Under the law, a boy or girl below 18 cannot marry. The punishment for violating this law is three years imprisonment and a fine of Rs45,000.

Unlike other parts of Pakistan, Sindh has legislated laws regulating marriages between Hindus. The Sindh Assembly passed the Hindu marriage law in 2016. Two years later, it was amended as the Sindh Hindu Marriage Amendment Act, 2018. 

Advocate Sunil Kumar explained that under these laws, the marriage of a Hindu couple must be registered with the state within 45 days. This applied not just to new marriages after the promulgation of the law but also to all those marriages which took place before the law was enacted. The law also designates two Pandits (Hindu priests) as Hindu marriage registrars for each union council. The law mandated that only registered pandits would be able to perform marriage ceremonies among Hindus and would be authorised to issue marriage certificates, which the respective union council and other legal bodies will accept. This system followed the system for the Muslims, with two nikkahkhwans (marriage registrars) authorised to officiate marriages in each Union Council. 

However, Kumar claimed that the law is not being implemented.

"The community is facing serious problems due to the non-implementation of the Sindh Hindu Marriage Act 2018," said Kumar, who also belongs to the Hindu community.

He said that despite the passage of the law, there are still many marriages which unregistered Pandits are officiating and consequently, these marriages are not legally recognised. Kumar explained that one reason for the lack of implementation of the law is that the Hindu community remains largely unaware of it.

Years have passed since the registration of Pandits under the Sindh Hindu Marriage Act was announced, but the process remains slow or non-existent, the lawyer said, adding that it has led to various complications and obstacles in implementing the law.

While speaking to the The Friday Times, social activist Pawan Kumar said there are many reasons for child marriages in Pakistan. Most of these are linked with either weak or unimplemented existing laws. Other issues are social, such as considering children as objects or at the level of slaves, he said, adding that the tribal and feudal structure of society, lack of awareness amongst the public about the hazards caused by early marriage, severe poverty, illiteracy, religious beliefs, social customs and a general lack of human rights are major contributors. Trafficking, conversions and lack of commitment at the government level also result in child marriages.

Another major reason is the ineffective and unresponsive registration system, which is supposed to prevent child marriages.

The activist said that accurately recording the age of children, especially girls, is not a priority in our society, due to which the ages of girls are misstated at the time of marriage.

"Another main reason for early child marriages among Scheduled Castes is the fear of forced conversion of young Hindu girls", he told The Friday Times.

* The name of the victim has been changed to protect their privacy

The writer is a Karachi-based independent multimedia journalist. He tweets @RanaMalhiRM and can be reached at