(USA Today) SWAT VALLEY, Pakistan — Tabassum Adnan married at 14.
Such was the norm in the small village in Swat Valley, a conservative region in Pakistan near the Afghan border. What's unusual is that she escaped.
"I was forced into marrying a man who was 20 years older than me," Adnan said. "For 20 years, I stayed with him and endured his abuse and mental and physical torture — he made me suffer."
Pakistani lawmakers are set to adopt a bill to ensure other girls aren't forced into marriage by increasing the punishment for the practice, already illegal under a 1929 law widely disregarded in the country. The measure has led to a fierce debate, intensifying an ongoing cultural clash in the country over secular and Muslim values.
Advocates for harsher laws against child marriage argue that it's an oppressive practice that traumatizes young girls, while traditionalists say it goes against the Koran to pass such a law. According to the Muslim holy book, the Prophet Muhammad married minors.
More than 140 million girls younger than 18 will be married to men as old as 60 in the next decade, the United Nations Human Rights Council estimated recently. About 50% of the marriages will occur in South Asia, the council found.
In Pakistan, poor families commonly marry off girls as young as 10, shifting the cost of supporting them to their new husbands.
Secular-minded lawmakers want to amend Pakistani law to impose two-year jail sentences and $1,000 fines for child marriage. Current penalties for breaking the law are only a month in jail and a $10 fine. The laws, which are rarely enforced, apply to parents and clerics who perform marriages.
Officials in Sindh province — where Karachi, Pakistan's largest city, is located — have strengthened local laws against the tradition. Police there have raided wedding parties to enforce it, shocking Pakistani conservatives.
Traditionalists are now mounting an effort to prevent the bill. The Council of Islamic Ideology, an official panel that advises the government on Islamic law, recently ruled that the 1929 law, as well as the proposed amendments, was "un-Islamic."
"Girls as young as 9 years old are eligible to be married if the signs of puberty are visible," said Council Chairman Maulana Muhammad Khan Shirani. "Parliament should not create laws which are against the teachings of the Koran."
Anti-child marriage advocates lamented how Shirani is allowed a say in the measure.Rubina Saigol, a Lahore-based activist, said the council is a legacy of Pakistan's authoritarian past.
"The Council for Islamic Ideology should be disbanded and removed through a constitutional amendment," she said. "It was created by a dictator, Ayub Khan, to further his own interests as a ruler. It was not created by a democratic assembly."
Pakistan is a signatory to international accords that prohibit child marriage, Saigol added. The country needed to stop adopting laws to save face abroad while flouting the norms of decency at home.
"It is rape and a very serious form of child abuse prohibited by law, as well as international human rights instruments," he said. "A girl should be allowed to marry only if she is 18 or above and with her full consent, not through violence or coercion."
But strengthening laws will make a difference only if officials enforce the new penalties, said Zohra Yousuf, chairwoman of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. Activists need not only to overcome traditional Muslim supporters of child marriage but also work to make sure the government has the capacity to challenge them, too.
"The exploitation of these marginalized groups will increase if there is no legal cover," Yousuf said.
Adnan agrees, and that's why she created an all-female Jirga — a tribal council that often settles disputes and creates laws in rural Pakistan — that works for justice for women in her community.
Adnan said she was reluctant to leave her marriage out of fear of shaming her family, indicating how social pressure is a key factor in perpetuating child marriage. But in the end, she said she knew she had to get out.
"I decided that my family's honor is not larger than my life," she said. "I walked out of that marriage and decided to work for women like me who are going through the same situation."