On Mother’s Day, I gave my mother a cushion with the words “Happy Mother’s Day” sewn on it and I attempted to write a letter to thank her for all she’s done for my brother and me. I made sure that after working around the clock all year, she could get some time to pamper herself. My mother and I love to attend gender equality enhancement seminars together and we bond over a cup of tea in the evenings after I get out of school and she gets free from her work. But both my mother and I know that the idea of “motherhood” has a dark side where we live in Pakistan: all over our country, girls like me are forced to marry and become mothers before the age of 18.
In Pakistan, one in 10 girls will be married before they reach the age of 15, one in four will be married before they are 18, and if present trends continue, nearly 2.5 million of the young girls born between 2005 and 2010 will be married before age 18. Marital rape is frequent and remains in a vacuum of the law as a contentious topic. And once girls in Pakistan are married, only a few of them use contraception in spite of their needs to space childbearing. This results in a large population of child mothers, many of them much younger than I am, who had no say in determining their futures.
In 2012, at least 1,000 Pakistani women and girls who were mostly victims of child marriage were murdered in so-called ‘honor killings’ carried out by husbands or male relatives over suspicions of adultery or other illicit sexual behavior, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, a private organization. It said another 7,000 survived similar assaults, including acid attacks, amputations, and immolation.
Unfortunately, child marriage, honor killings and domestic violence are not the only challenges facing girls in Pakistan. Pakistan has the world’s second highest number of children out of school, reaching 5.1 million in 2010. This is equivalent to 1 in 12 of the world’s out-of-school children. Two-thirds of Pakistan’s out of school children are girls, meaning over 3 million girls don’t have access to education. Education can make a big difference to women’s future earnings in Pakistan: women with a high level of literacy earn 95% more than women with no literacy skills.
I know how lucky I am: my family supports my choices and advocates for my education and healthy upbringing. My mother is an independent thinker and an outspoken supporter of women’s rights. Her wish for me to live a life that is different from the majority of girls in our country. She inspires me to continue her legacy of charting a path towards change for Pakistani women and girls.
But my upbringing has not shielded me from the harsh realities of living as a woman in my country. Even though I grew up in a progressive household in Pakistan, I have never been outside my house without male accompaniment, and I am always covered head to toe. I’ve seen my cousins outside of the city married at fifteen to much older men. They did not protest; marriage is all they were raised to expect. Young feminists in the United States have no qualms about fighting for their rights in their home country, but I’m scared that if I return to Pakistan after university to begin a career in women’s rights, I may be harassed – or killed.
The issues that plague Pakistani women are widespread across the globe. If nothing changes, there will be 142 million child marriages in developing countries between now and 2021 – or 37,000 girls per day. If nothing changes, as many as 30 million girls will remain at risk of genital mutilation or cutting before their 15th birthday. And if nothing changes, girls will continue to face the barriers that prevent them from pursuing an education.
But there are ways we can pressure countries like Pakistan to protect girls and women. The United Nations is currently negotiating its post-2015 development goals, which will be finalized in September, to provide guidance and overall strategy for the next 15 years of international diplomacy and action. As the UN member states, including Pakistan, debate these goals this year, it is critical that they make girls’ rights a top priority and the central focus of the post-2015 goals. I know that the long-term well-being and stability of girls in my country and around the globe can only be guaranteed through sustained leadership from world powers and the UN.
This is why I have spoken out for change. In anticipation of negotiations on the post-2015 UN development goals, more than 500 adolescent girls, including me, advised over 25 leading development organizations and issue experts to create The Girl Declaration, a document that lays out the key elements needed in the new development agenda to put the focus on girls, including standards for education, health services, safety, legal reforms, and sexual rights. It’s our hope that the UN listens to the voices of these girls from around the world and puts their rights front and center.
Ensuring that adolescent girls grow up healthy, educated, safe and empowered is crucial to breaking the cycle of poverty and building a better future for the world. By focusing international goals on adolescent girls, the UN can not only guarantee a better life for them, but can help tackle some of the most pressing challenges facing Pakistan, and the world today. My mother taught me to fight for the rights of women like me, and I will continue to advocate that no girl should be forced into marriage and early motherhood before she is ready.
Hamna Tariq is a 17-year-old girl living in Lahore, Pakistan. She is a member of the Youth Advocacy Network in Pakistan and Advocates for Youth Girl Engagement Advisory Board, where she advocates on behalf of young women in national and International arenas. Her mother, Zoia Tariq, is a women’s rights activist in Pakistan.