Fifteen girls below the age of ten years were on Friday engaged to marry to settle a blood feud two tribes in Pakistan.
The Chakrani tribe is to "marry off" three- to 10-year-old girls to settle the feud with the Qalandari tribe. It was when a dog of the latter clan bit a donkey of the former eight years ago, the fierce dispute had erupted.
The feud claimed the lives of 11 Qalandaris and two Chakranis, including a woman.
At a jirga held Wednesday in Lanjoo Saghari village near the Sindh-Balochistan border, it was decided to implement the ruling of six years ago, Dawn newspaper reports.
Marrying off under-age girls to settle disputes over crimes like murder or adultery is a common practice among tribes of Sindh and Balochistan.
A few years ago, the Sukkur circuit bench of the Sindh High Court had declared the holding of a jirga illegal on a public interest petition filed by lawyer-cum-human rights activist Ghulam Shabbir Shar.
The then chief justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry had taken suo motu notice of such a jirga presided over by PPP leader Mir Hazar Khan Bijarani. The jirga had ordered a tribe to give three under-age girls in marriage to their rivals to settle a dispute.
The chief justice's timely intervention had saved the girls from being sacrificed at the altar of tribal customs.
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf sacked Chaudhry and other judges of the Supreme Court and the High Court after declaring an emergency last November.
Their restoration has now become the bone of contention between the Pakistan Peoples Party that leads the country's ruling coalition and alliance partner Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz.
Rights groups have been actively campaigning against the custom for sometime now.
Zainab Bibi of the Mardan district of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP).
was married at 13, divorced by 16, and has two children to look after. ''I was married to a 50-year-old man. My brother had killed a man from that family. To settle the dispute, my hand was given in marriage-- which ended in divorce,'' she told Ashfaq Yusufzai of the IPS news agency in 2006.
Zainab remembers that the three years at her in-laws' house was like hell. ''Everyday, they beat me for petty issues apparently in revenge for the murder,''she recalled in tears. Now on her own, she is raising her children with her father's support.
There are thousands of women like her in the NWFP, but their stories seldom make it to the media, says Rakshanda Naz, resident director of the womens' rights group 'Aurat Foundation' in Peshawar, capital of the NWFP. Neither does legislation provide relief to the victims, she added.
According to anthropologist Samar Minullah, director of the 'Ethnomedia' organisation and maker of a hard-hitting documentary on 'swara' in 2003, the practice is so deeply entrenched in Pakhtun and other tribal societies that it is difficult to raise a voice against it.
Policy makers who could have outlawed the practice have shown no interest in stopping 'swara'. It stigmatises a woman for life and there is little chance for happiness because there is no 'honour' in the marriage.
The custom is as difficult to curb as the practice of 'honour killing', widespread in Pakistan and other Muslim countries, in which a women may be put to death for actual or alleged immoral behaviour by her own relatives.
Yasmeen Hassan, author of 'The Haven Becomes Hell: A Study of Domestic Violence in Pakistan', writes that the ''concepts of women as property and honour are so deeply entrenched in the social, political and economic fabric of Pakistan that the government, for the most part, ignores the daily occurrences of women being killed and maimed by their families''.
Under prevailing law, if a 'swara' victim files a complaint with the police, her father could be arrested. ''This stops the victims from speaking up to get relief,'' Minullah observed.
Sabeena Gul of 'Shirkat Gah' and Mussarat Syed of 'Khwendo Kor', both women's rights and advocacy groups, said 'swara' satisfied the need for 'revenge' that is strong among Pushtoons, and other ethnic groups in the region.
It is believed that the children of such unions could help keep peace between feuding families. Whether this happens or not, the girl taken in 'swara' bears the brunt of it all and is forced into a life of near slavery in the home of the 'enemy'.
It is left to the aggrieved party to pick a girl and, if the dead man had high standing in society, his heirs may even take away two girls in 'swara'. The process is overseen by the 'jirga' or villae council, which usually favours the more influential family.
The victim herself has no say and typically she is taken away on reaching puberty. In order to deny her family any dignity, the nikah (Islamic marriage rite) may be deliberately delayed. The girl bears the stigma for the rest of her life.
In fact, the whole procedure violates Islamic matrimonial law which requires the consent of both the man and the woman about to enter into marriage.
Rakhshanda Parveen from 'Sachet', a non-governmental organisation, describes swara as ''culturally-sanctioned practice of violence against women''.
''Swara and vanni are pre-Islamic customs and have no room in Islam. Therefore, they must be condemned and strict punishment should be awarded to the accused under Islamic laws,'' said Syeda Viqaur Nisa Hashmi, a research associate with the National Commission on Status of Women.