Pak­istani girl en­slaved for a debt

The har­row­ing tale of a 14-year girl who was snatched in the night

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

MIR­PUR KHAS, Pak­istan:

The mother rum­mages through a large metal trunk, search­ing for a pic­ture of her young daugh­ter taken away in the night to be the bride of a man who says the fam­ily owed him $1,000.

Be­neath the blan­kets, clothes and sil­ver or­na­ments that she wears with her sari, Ameri Kashi Kohli finds two pho­tos, care­fully wrapped in plas­tic, of her smil­ing daugh­ters.

Ameri tries to re­mem­ber her daugh­ter Jeevti’s age; few of this coun­try’s des­per­ately poor have birth cer­tifi­cates. With a grin at a sud­den rec­ol­lec­tion she says, “I re­mem­ber her sis­ter, my youngest, was born when there was a big earth­quake in Pak­istan.”

That was 2005. Jeevti was 3 years old at the time, Ameri says. That means the girl was just 14 when she dis­ap­peared into the hands of the land man­ager her par­ents were be­holden to. Her mother is sure that Jeevti paid the price for a never-end­ing debt. Ameri says she and her hus­band bor­rowed roughly $500 when they first be­gan to work on the

land, but she throws up her hands and says the debt was re­paid. “We started with a loan, and ev­ery time they said they were tak­ing money for our loan, but no one gave us any­thing to show we paid.” In­stead, the debt dou­bled. It’s a fa­mil­iar story here in south­ern Pak­istan: Small loans bal­loon into im­pos­si­ble debts, bills mul­ti­ply, pay­ments are never de­ducted.

In this world, women like Ameri and her young daugh­ter are treated as prop­erty: taken as pay­ment for a debt, to set­tle dis­putes, or as re­venge if a landowner wants to pun­ish his worker. Some­times par­ents, bur­dened by an un­for­giv­ing debt, even of­fer their daugh­ters as pay­ment.

The women are like tro­phies to the men. They choose the pret­ti­est and the young and pli­able. Some­times they take them as sec­ond wives to look af­ter their homes. Some­times they use them as pros­ti­tutes to earn money. Some­times they take them sim­ply be­cause they can. Ameri says she has heard sto­ries of other work­ers whose daugh­ters dis­ap­peared, in a coun­try that sees an es­ti­mated 1,000 girls like them taken each year. Now, even though she and her fam­ily live else­where af­ter being tossed out of their home, she’s afraid that her 11-year-old could be taken too.

The poor­est

And like ev­ery­thing else in her life, as a Hindu in a Muslim coun­try, as a woman who is among the poor­est of the poor, she knows she will be pow­er­less to stop it from hap­pen­ing. “I went to the po­lice and to the court. But no one is lis­ten­ing to us,” Ameri says. She says the land man­ager made her daugh­ter con­vert to Is­lam and took the girl as his sec­ond wife. “They told us, ‘Your daugh­ter has com­mit­ted to Is­lam and you can’t get her back.’”

Ameri works as a day la­borer cut­ting su­gar cane and feed for an­i­mals in Pak­istan’s south­ern Sindh prov­ince, a re­gion dom­i­nated by pow­er­ful landown­ers whose hold­ings stretch for hun­dreds of acres.

Nar­row dirt tracks weave through vast fields where Hindu women in col­or­ful saris squat with small scythes to cut the crops. There’s no talk­ing. Oc­ca­sion­ally the women stop for a drink of wa­ter. They make less than a dol­lar a day.

Like Ameri, they’re of­ten in­debted to the owner of the land on which they work, kept as virtual slaves un­til they pay back their debt, which al­most never hap­pens. More than 2 mil­lion Pak­ista­nis live as “mod­ern slaves,” ac­cord­ing to the 2016 Global Slav­ery In­dex, which ranks Pak­istan in the top three of­fend­ing coun­tries that still en­slave peo­ple, some as farm work­ers, oth­ers at brick kilns or as house­hold staff. Some­times the work­ers are beaten or chained to keep them from flee­ing.

“They have no rights, and their women and girls are the most vul­ner­a­ble,” says Ghu­lam Hay­der whose Green Ru­ral De­vel­op­ment Or­ga­ni­za­tion works to free Pak­istan’s bonded la­bor­ers.

Sex­ual as­sault

Em­ploy­ers sex­u­ally as­sault the women and girls, marry them, force them to con­vert, and rarely will the po­lice in­ter­vene, he says. He re­calls a case in which a hus­band ac­cused a landowner of sex­u­ally as­sault­ing his wife. The landowner held him for three days, beat him and re­leased him with a warn­ing to tell no one. An es­ti­mated 1,000 young Chris­tian and Hindu girls, most of them un­der­age and im­pov­er­ished, are taken from their homes each year, con­verted to Is­lam and mar­ried, said a re­port by the South Asia Part­ner­ship or­ga­ni­za­tion.

“They al­ways take the pretty ones,” Hay­der says. The night Jeevti dis­ap­peared, the fam­ily had slept out­side, the only way to en­dure the bru­tal sum­mer heat. In the morn­ing, she was gone. No one heard any­thing, her mother says. The fam­ily turned to ac­tivist Veero Kohli to help free the girl. Kohli, who isn’t re­lated to the fam­ily, was born a slave. She fled bondage in 1999, walk­ing for three days to safety and seek­ing out the Hu­man Rights Com­mis­sion of Pak­istan to help her be­fore re­turn­ing to the landowner to re­cover her chil­dren and free eight other fam­i­lies.

Since then, Kohli has de­voted her­self to chal­leng­ing Pak­istan’s pow­er­ful landown­ers, lib­er­at­ing thou­sands of fam­i­lies from bonded la­bor. She has been beaten; her home has been burned down. She has been ar­rested on trumped-up charges. Her hus­band has been ar­rested, and three of her sons have been jailed. Kohli’s de­fi­ance in­censes many men in a coun­try dom­i­nated by a cen­turies-old pa­tri­ar­chal cul­ture: Whether vic­tims of honor killings, forced into mar­riages or en­slaved as a bonded la­bor­ers, a heavy bur­den falls on women in Pak­istan. “I know that they would like to kill me, but I will never stop fight­ing to free these peo­ple,’ says Kohli, a strap­ping woman nearly 6 feet tall. Five months ago, she went with Ameri to the Pi­yaro Lundh po­lice sta­tion to find her daugh­ter.

“Her mother was cry­ing in the po­lice sta­tion to let her see her daugh­ter,” Kohli says. They said the girl went will­ingly, Kohli says. “I told them: ‘Let me talk to her. Let her mother talk to her if she went freely.’” They re­fused.

In­stead, they called in the man who Ameri said had taken her daugh­ter. Hamid Brohi came alone, with­out the girl. “He said, ‘Any­way, she is pay­ment for 100,000 ru­pees ($1,000) they owe me,’” Kohli re­calls.

He said he had for­given the fam­ily’s debt and tossed them off his land, Kohli says. Now Kohli is re­turn­ing to the same po­lice sta­tion, a small, grubby con­crete room with two desks jammed to­gether and a rick­ety wooden cab­i­net piled high with files held to­gether with string. Po­lice of­fi­cer Aqueel Ahmed thumbs through a dozen files, barely con­tain­ing his anger at the ac­tivist.

Fi­nally, he pulls out an af­fi­davit. In it, the girl, who now goes by the name Fa­tima, said she had con­verted and mar­ried Brohi of her own free will. She also said she couldn’t meet her mother be­cause now she was Muslim and her fam­ily was Hindu. Jeevti can nei­ther read nor write; her sig­na­ture on the state­ment she pur­port­edly made of her own vo­li­tion is a thumbprint. There was no po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Ameri’s al­le­ga­tion that her daugh­ter was kid­napped, Ahmed says, nor was there any in­ves­ti­ga­tion into her age in a prov­ince where the le­gal age for mar­riage is 18. “There was no cause to in­ves­ti­gate. She said she went will­ingly. She said there was no co­er­cion,” Ahmed says.

Iso­lated

A sec­ond po­lice of­fi­cer, Riaz Hos­sain, says he knows of sev­eral other Hindu girls who con­verted will­ingly, too. But Hindu ac­tivists say the girls are kept iso­lated un­til they have been forced to con­vert and are mar­ried - and then it’s al­most too late to do any­thing. In Pak­istani mar­riages, the hus­band has to give a woman the right to di­vorce; with­out that, she has no right to leave him.

A law passed last month out­laws forced con­ver­sions, but hu­man rights groups say it’s prac­ti­cally im­pos­si­ble to prove that a con­ver­sion is forced be­cause the girl in­vari­ably signs a state­ment say­ing she was will­ing. Po­lice and judges al­most never in­ves­ti­gate, ac­tivists say, be­cause many believe the con­ver­sions are a good thing and they would be de­fy­ing their Muslim faith by even chal­leng­ing one.

“So many girls, im­ma­ture girls be­low the age of 18 years, mostly have been kid­napped,” says Ramesh Ku­mar Vankwani of the Pak­istan Hindu Coun­cil. He says fam­i­lies are rou­tinely threat­ened, and with­out po­lice pro­tec­tion, they aban­don their daugh­ters. Ameri, the mother, says she has been threat­ened by both the po­lice and the man who took her daugh­ter. She has gone to five dif­fer­ent courts to get her daugh­ter back, and failed each time. But she hasn’t given up hope.

Po­lice in a ma­chine-gun-mounted jeep take Kohli, the ac­tivist, and a for­eign re­porter to visit the girl. Her mother doesn’t come, too afraid, she says, to con­front the po­lice in per­son again. Brohi, a sullen-look­ing man with a thin mus­tache, greets the po­lice with an em­brace. He an­grily de­nies he took Jeevti as pay­ment for the fam­ily’s debt, de­spite his ear­lier boast to the ac­tivist that he had done just that. — AP

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