Virtual Slavery: The Practice of “Compensation Marriages”



“Everyday they beat me for petty issues apparently in revenge for the murder

--Zainab Bibi, victim of a compensation marriage at the age of 1, from Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province


What is a “Compensation Marriage”?

This ancient custom, prevalent in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province, Afghanistan, and parts of the Middle East, refers to the practice of forcing girl children into arranged marriages as compensation for a murder perpetrated by her family, to offset debts, or to settle other inter-clan or family disputes.[1][1]


In Pakistan this practice is called Swara, in other regions it is known as Vanni. Whatever it is called, compensation marriages are widely accepted as a way of keeping the peace between tribes and families. However, under-aged girls torn from their homes in this manner often end up systematically abused and forced into a life of virtual slavery in the homes of their “enemies”.[2][2]


Denied Fundamental Human Rights

The real victim of this ancient custom is not the aggrieved family, but the girl, forced to pay for the “sins” of her family. Denied her basic human rights—and even a proper marriage—she bears the stigma of shame for the rest of her life, short as that may ultimately be.


Investigations undertaken by Amnesty International[3][3] find that many of these girls end up in abusive relationships, with no status and no rights of redress within the society. The number of girls and young women victimized by this custom is not known, but investigators consider it be in the tens of thousands. The number of girls killed or maimed as a result of compensation marriages is another unknown.


Violation of Islamic law

Compensation marriages are common in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province, where a village council, or “jirga”, may oversee the process of Swara. Despite the fact that the practice pre-dates Islam and violates Islamic matrimonial law—which states that marriages require the consent of both parties—there is no legal recourse and few advocates lobbying to end the practice.[4][4]


One person who is speaking out against Swara is Samar Minullah, an anthropologist and director of Ethnomedia, a Pakistan-based NGO that works on behalf of women’s rights. In 2003, Ms. Minullah made a highly charged and emotional documentary film in order to draw public attention to the practice and persuade policy makers in the Northwest tribal areas to finally recognize the problem and act to eliminate it.[5][5]


So far nothing has happened. According to Ms. Minullah, policy makers, who could have outlawed the practice, have shown no interest in stopping it. They prefer to let such ‘traditional practices’ to continue. According to Amnesty International, the Pakistan Penal Code prohibits the sale and forced marriage of underage girls, but in the lawless Northwest, such laws are brazenly ignored and remain un-enforced.[6][6]


In northern Iraq, parents will often sell girls into marriages to offset family debts, or to compensate another family for the murder of one of their male members by the girl’s father, brother or uncle. Again, though forced marriages are illegal in the country, the law is not enforced[7][7]. And with the ever-increasing level of violence in Iraq, more young girls are being forced into marriages with insurgents from various factions.


Child Marriages on the Increase

According to Amnesty International the practice seems to be on the increase in countries where young girls or adolescents are routinely married off—either because the family is poor and needs money—or because of the perceived need to mollify a rival tribe or family for the loss of a male member.


In Afghanistan child marriages are commonplace. A study conducted by the Ministry of Women’s Affairs in 2004 revealed that nearly 60 per cent of the women surveyed were married before the age of 16, with some married as early as nine years of age.[8][8] 


Early marriages take a terrible toll on young lives. The maternal mortality ratio in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other areas where early marriages are condoned, is unacceptably high. In Afghanistan’s remote northeast province of Badakshan, there are 6,500 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births, the highest level ever recorded. Child marriages are one of the root causes of this shocking statistic, since underage girls are among the highest risk groups for complicated pregnancies and births. But other factors contribute: lack of access to contraceptives, poor nutrition, few assisted deliveries by trained health personnel, and few facilities offering emergency obstetric care.[9][9]


Dr. Sayed Mohamed Amin Fatimi, the Afghan Public Health Minister stated flatly: “Fifty to seventy mothers die every day from birth complications, which is a silent tsunami for Afghanistan.”


UNFPA Tackles Violence against Women

In Pakistan, Afghanistan and selected countries in the Middle East, UNFPA—in cooperation with Ministries of Health and Women’s Affairs and NGOs—has launched comprehensive national campaigns to eliminate violence against women, including honour killings, early marriages and the systematic abuse of young girls.


In both Pakistan and Afghanistan, UNFPA is also promoting gender equality through training, education and provision of reproductive health services, with an emphasis on vulnerable populations, particularly adolescent girls.



The international community needs to act in concert to combat compensation marriages and other practices that erode the rights of girls and young women.


In countries where compensation marriages are common, the following steps need to be taken:





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[1][1] IRIN, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, “Pakistan: Tribal Custom Forces Girls into “Compensation Marriages,” IRIN News, August 20, 2003.

[2][2] IPS, Inter Press Service News Agency, “Pakistan: Blood Feud Trap Girls in Compensation Marriages,” April 1, 2006.

[3][3] Amnesty International, “Afghanistan: Women Still under Attach—A Systematic Failure to Protect,” accessed on web site: www.amnesty.org, October 25, 2007.

[4][4] Ibid.

[5][5] Op. cit. 1.

[6][6] Op. cit. 3.

[7][7] Ibid.

[8][8] Ibid.

[9][9] UNFPA, “Afghanistan at a Glance”, in  Asia and the Pacific at a Glance, UNFPA, New York, 2007.