Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series.
Several years ago in Pakistan in 2002, I taught fourth grade at a school in an Afghan camp. The school was supported by a German organization called GTZ. For several years before that I ran a project in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa providing formal and informal education in the camp.
People sent their girls to school because GTZ supplied a monthly allotment of five kilograms of cooking oil to each student. If a student was absent from school for more than three days a month, the school cut her name from the list, which meant she wouldn’t receive her cooking oil. As a result, attendance was excellent.
One day when I entered my fourth grade classroom, I was surprised to see that Wazira, always a quiet student, was sitting in the middle of the classroom with all the other girls around her. I thought she might have been hurt.
Instead of saying, “Good morning,” I asked them, “What is going on, girls?” Looking at me, they all rushed to their places and I saw Wazira was hiding something in her backpack.
There was only one chair in the room and it was for the teacher. The students sat on the floor on an old rug. Since I was standing, it was easy to watch what the students were doing on the floor.
“Is everything alright, Wazira?” I asked. She kept quiet and did not answer my question. Salma, her classmate, answered, “Miss, Wazira brought her wedding clothes to school.”
“What wedding, whose wedding?” I asked. Again, Salma replied, “Miss, tomorrow is Wazira’s wedding and she got new clothes, make-up and bracelets.”
I looked at ten-year-old Wazira. Her innocent face was blushing red with a new shyness. Child marriage was not new to any of us, but to marry off someone as young as Wazira was unbelievable.
I asked her several questions but she didn’t answer. Instead the others offered clarification. The eyes of all girls were on Wazira. I sat down in my chair and asked Wazira to come to me. With small steps, she came over and stood beside me. I took her hand and said, “Are you not going to invite me to your wedding?” She pulled her hand back and hid her young face behind her scarf.
Kajira, her twin sister who was also in my class, said, “We will invite you and we will be very happy to have you with us. Are you really coming?”
“I would love to come, but who will take me to your house?” I don’t know where you live.”
Kajira joyfully said, “Our house is close to school. You come to school and from here I will take you to our house.”
I promised them that I would come the next day at 10 a.m. After school I went shopping for something for the little bride. The shopkeepers called to me as I walked past, asking me to take a look inside their shops. I was uncertain about what to buy and finally, I entered a big shop.
The shopkeeper asked me, “What are you looking for, Madam?” I told him I didn’t know what to buy. “Tell me for what occasion do you want to buy something. I will help you,” he said.
“Oh thank you! I want a cute gift for a bride,” I answered. “Then it’s simple, have a look at this tea set.” He took a box off a shelf.
“No,” I said. He dusted off another box of dishes and said, “What do you think of this? These mugs are as cute as you wanted.”
Paying no attention to him, I picked a doll and said, “Pack this for me.”
He took the box from me and laughed. “Are you buying this for a bride or for her child?”
I held my breath and then said angrily, “She is a child! You know she is only ten. This is the time that she should play with dolls.”
“Sorry Ma-ma-madam, I didn’t mean it.” He stuttered in broken words.
I realized that I was arguing with the wrong person. It was none of his business. I paid him quickly and got out of the shop.
The next morning, I took my blue and pink suit out of the closet and got ready for the party. When I arrived at school, Kajira was already there. It was a ten-minute walk from school to their house and the sun was burning. I opened my umbrella and asked Kajira to come under it.
As I entered the house, Kajira called with a loud and joyful voice, “Mother, our teacher is here.”
I saw a woman in a torn black dress come out of a mudroom and another woman peep out the window. Her eyes were puffy. It was clear that she had cried all night and her face was full of wrinkles. She looked much older than her age.
Coming closer to me, she kissed my forehead and guided me toward the room where the other women were sitting. The small room was filled with women of different ages. It was a hot summer day and the room smelled like rotten eggs. Wazira’s mother pulled out a pillow, placed it on the rug, spread a bed sheet over it, and invited me to sit.
The wedding parties I had joined so far were mostly in hotels. In those parties, the guests from both the groom’s and bride’s families sat together in one place. New and clean clothes are part of our wedding parties, but this one was different. There was no music, no dancing, and no new clothes. I was wondering about this big difference.
I asked a women sitting next to me, “Why is it so calm here? It doesn’t look like a wedding.” She laughed and said, “My dear! This is the bride’s house; the real party is at the groom’s place.” She asked me, “Are you married?” I said, “No.”
“How old are you,” she asked with surprise. “Twenty,” I answered shortly.
“Poor girl,” she said, and turned away to talk to another woman.
AWWP’s writing on child marriage is being shared with Breakthrough’s campaign, “Nation Against Early Marriage.”