ISLAMABAD— Raeena was 14-years-old when she was married to a man 21 years her senior.
She moved in with her husband’s family with little idea of what a marriage means or what was expected of her.
In a society where a family’s honor is often linked to female sexuality, her mother felt pressured to marry her off early.
“I was worried about my honor," she said. "It was not her age to be married, but I was worried about her father’s honor as well. That is why I got her married off.”
Raeena's case isn't unique. Each year, hundreds of thousands of girls across the country are married before they are physically or psychologically prepared for it.
While child marriage is an issue for both sexes, a recent study by the child advocacy group Plan International suggests females in Pakistan marry at a significantly younger age than males, sometimes as early as their first menstrual cycle.
Accurately assessing the number of underage brides or grooms is difficult in a country where birth records are often manipulated, but UNICEF estimates some 21 percent of all marriages involve a person under the age of 18.
Local activists insist the true figure — especially for girls in rural areas — is as high as 60 or 70 percent.
Lack of awareness blamed
Activists blame the practice on a lack of awareness, poverty and perceptions about a female’s role in society: sons are considered potential wage earners while daughters are considered financial burdens.
That little thought is given to early marriages, they say, can create problems down the road.
“Often the girl, the mother, dies during child birth," Naseem Akhtar of the Child Protection Unit in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province told VOA. "The poor thing is often herself only 13 or 14 years old and not capable of becoming a mother. Then dealing with the mother-in-law, the sister-in-law, the extended family system. She is not capable of handling all of this.”
Awareness campaigns by the government and non-government organizations have helped, but child rights advocates say real long term change is not possible without easier access to education and employment for girls.