According to IPS, “It was personal experience that turned Gul Bano and her cleric husband, Ahmed Khan, into ambassadors against early marriage.” Bano was forced into marriage upon turning fifteen, and became pregnant soon thereafter. Following a grueling three-day labor, IPS reports, Bano’s baby was stillborn and Bano developed a painful and socially embarrassing medical complication commonly corollary to early childbearing. The condition, obstetric fistula, allows excretory matter to flow out through the birth canal:
Unable to handle the prolonged labour, Bano’s young body had developed a fistula caused by the baby’s head pressing hard against the lining of the birth canal and tearing into the walls of her rectum and the bladder.
Incontinence, chronic bladder infections, painful genital ulcerations, infertility and kidney failure are common consequences of fistula. Bano told IPS that, following the delivery, her father refused to visit her because she was constantly wet with urine and reeking of faecal matter. It was her cleric husband, Khan, who stood by Bano’s side.
Three years and six operations later, Bano has become an advocate, sharing her story with other women and teaching them about the importance of birth spacing, antenatal checkups, and emergency obstetric care. Bano’s husband, Khan, joins his wife in the movement to eradicate early marriage and the harms that flow therefrom. Dr. Shershah Syed, a gynecologist at Koohi Goth Women’s Hospital, where fistula victims are treated free, told IPS:
Khan is a cleric and yet he does not conform to the stereotype of a religious person. He tells parents that fistula can be avoided if they stop marrying off their daughters at a very early age.*
GJI Forced Marriage Prevention Initiative Director, Julia Alanen, cautions against framing harmful marriage practices as exclusive to any one particular ethnic or religious group:
Nearly every ethnic community in the world, and members of nearly every known religion, share a common history of harmful marriage customs… Because religious leaders hold a position of considerable influence and authority in their communities, they are uniquely positioned to shape social mores and marriage practices. Religious leaders can assume a leadership role in advancing interpretations of religious doctrine that promote gender equality, condemn gender-based violence, and encourage the abandonment of harmful customs and practices, including forced and early marriage.
The first U.S. national forced marriage survey, conducted in 2011 by the Virginia-based Tahirih Justice Center, revealed cases involving families from 56 different countries of origin and a diverse range of religions.
Fistula – Another Blight on the Child Bride, By Zofeen Ebrahim, IPS (April 12, 2012).
J. Alanen, A Question of Consent: Forced and Early Marriage in the United States, Children’s Legal Rights Journal (forthcoming, Summer 2012).