Pakistan: In Flood-Hit Balochistan, Child Brides’ Pay’ For Damages, Economic Hardships


In the aftermath of the 2022 floods, the practice of child brides has increased in Usta Muhammad District as people thrust into poverty resort to desperate measures

by Asim Ahmed Khan
In the bustling town of Usta Muhammad, nestled between the borders of Sindh and Balochistan, there lived a young girl named Sumaira*. Bright-eyed and full of dreams, Sumaira was cherished by her family. But when the town and her family faced harsh times in the aftermath of the devastating floods of August 2022, many families, including Sumaira’s, struggled to make ends meet. With crops ruined and livelihoods swept away, desperation crept into their lives.

Like her siblings, Sumaira attempted to cope with the changing times. Little did she know that her life was soon about to change completely.

Sumaira’s father, Ali*, a hardworking farmer, had found himself watching his crops drown in the deluge. For Ali, the image of his crops covered in water symbolised how he was drowning in debt. Agonised over providing for his family, he took desperate measures.

As the town grappled with the aftermath of the floods, desperation crept in. Those who could sold their belongings and moved out of the district in search of greener pastures. Families unable to cope with financial burdens turned to the age-old dark custom of ‘selling’ their young girls.

Like many others, Ali decided to sell his few precious possessions, including his daughter Sumaira.

Sumaira overheard whispers about girls being sold, sometimes multiple times over, in the district to settle debts or fulfil societal obligations.


A remote region on the edge of Balochistan, the Usta Muhammad district is largely overlooked by the government sitting far away in Quetta or by the one sitting even further in Islamabad.

However, in the aftermath of the 2022 floods, the district received renewed attention from the government. Officials canvassed Bagh, Goth Abdul Latif, Chowki Jamali, and other areas of the district to ascertain the situation on the ground and calculate the losses endured. It was during this exercise that the desperate situation in the district came to light.

However, the situation in Usta Muhammad has only worsened since the floods. The floods devastated the land and shattered the spirit of its people, and the subsequent economic downturn crushed them financially.

Madad Community, a non-governmental organisation working on climate change in Balochistan, recently shared that due to the impacts of climate change and the 2022 floods, productivity and profitability in the agriculture sector have drastically declined.

Maryam Jamali, an organiser for the organisation, said that most residents of the flood-hit areas were forced to migrate. This included those belonging to the relatively financially secure middle class of Balochistan.

But poor farmers have nowhere to go nor the means to get there.

She said it has become difficult for farmers to survive solely on agriculture to earn a living. As a result, they have to take loans.

She warned that this situation could worsen due to the impacts of extreme climate change on agriculture, with extreme heat, droughts, and floods predicted. This could further impact the dwindling incomes of people residing in Usta Muhammad and neighbouring Naseerabad areas, exacerbating the trend of selling underaged girls into marriage.

Drowning in debt

With governmental support either delayed or insufficient, residents of this district in the Karachi basin were forced to take out loans to rebuild their lives.

These loans were taken primarily for two purposes. The first was for labourers to pay creditors for the losses they suffered due to the floods or to rebuild their homes in exchange for working as farmers at low wages. People also took out loans to cover expensive medical bills for seeking treatment from urban capitals.

Between the floods and the poor economy, the locals were left with little income to repay these loans. In both instances, people resorted to marrying off their young daughters for money to pay off their loans.

Locals said that while the custom of child brides has long existed, it has increased due to the economic downturn that followed the 2022 floods.

“Most of the girls are married off for Rs300,000 to Rs500,000. With this money, farmers and labourers pay off their debts, seek medical treatment in Karachi or invest in their son’s education,” said Shams Rahim, a DSP in Usta Muhammad.

Sara Zaman, a feminist and a researcher from Karachi who teaches at a private university, said she has been working with various national and international organisations on women’s issues for the past 15 years. She explained the social, religious and economic reasons behind the prevalence of child marriages.

“Marriage of young girls is also beneficial to the parents as they neither have to spend much on their daughter’s marriage nor have to pay dowry”.

Zaman said their research has shown that such marriages are usually arranged to settle family debts, end blood feuds, or meet household expenses.

Not singular events

Child marriages is a custom that has long been practiced in the subcontinent. However, in Balochistan, it has taken on a particularly sinister format where a child may be sold into marriage multiple times before she “settles”.

Local health worker Fozia, who witnessed the plight of these girls, lamented the situation. She recalled how girls were hastily married off all for families to save face or escape dire circumstances.

In many cases, Fozia said, a young girl would be sold for as many as three times. She explained that things do not always work out in this sordid process. This usually happens when a girl fails to ‘adjust’ with the family who bought her.

Many times, she said, a girl betrothed to marry in exchange for money may flee before the wedding. In such an event, if she has sisters, the loss of her running away is compensated by marrying off one of her younger sisters.

To make matters worse, Fozia said that young girls can sometimes be accused of adultery by landlords on whose lands a farmer works. Fearing for their family’s ‘honour’, parents are usually hurrying to get their young daughters married off.

Professor Dr Najma Ghaffar, Head of the Gynecology Unit at Bolan Medical College, Quetta, says that early marriages lead to many complications for women, especially when it comes to bearing children. To improve women’s health, she said it is necessary to create a system where law enforcement officials are trained to track and prosecute cases of illegal child marriage.

When asked about the practice, a father responded, ” We only sell our daughter because she can bear children. We don’t sell boys.”

Laws and opposition

In 1929, the British colonial rulers outlawed child marriages through a law. Even though the law predates the Partition, it was adopted by Pakistan along with all other British laws for a united India.

Under this Act:

  • A girl should be at least 16 years old, and a boy should be at least 18 years old at the time of marriage.
  • If there are no authentic documents to determine a person’s age, the court must order a medical examination of the individual to ascertain their age.
  • Parents or guardians marrying children at a young age or bridegroom above 18 years of age can be punished with imprisonment for one month or a fine of Rs1,000.

Marriage and family matters became a provincial subject after the Eighteenth Constitutional Amendment was passed in 2010.

Former Provincial Assembly Member Yasmin Lahri said she had presented a bill on fixing a minimum age for marriage in the Balochistan Assembly in 2014. However, Lahri lamented that members of religious parties and other conservative groups strongly opposed the bill.

“They told the government that legislation should be made according to Sharia.”

MPA Dr Shama Ishaq presented another version of the bill in 2016. However, it was rejected after members opposed to the motion termed it ‘un-Islamic’.

The media and civil society raised a lot of noise, but the bill could not be presented in the assembly again, Lahri added.

Balochistan Information Secretary Imran Khan said the last time a bill on the matter was presented before the Balochistan Cabinet, strong objections were raised against setting the minimum age for marriage at 18 years. The provincial cabinet returned the bill to the relevant department for revision and rectification.

Samreen Mengal, a social activist working in Quetta, believes legislation on the subject is inevitable. Mengal has also advocated raising the minimum age for marriage to 18.

Zia Baloch, who is affiliated with a welfare organisation that intervenes in child marriages, said that he and his organisation have stopped several such marriages by taking timely action. Zia said that his organisation stopped one such marriage last year and registered a case against the culprits involved.

In the face of adversity, the plight of young girls in Usta Muhammad underscores the urgent need for concerted efforts to address the root causes of child marriages and ensure the protection of fundamental rights.__Courtesy The Friday Times Pakistan
*Name changed to protect identity