The affordable education loan option
Islamabad - Little Gul Meena was playing outside her home in a remote Pakistani village, unaware of the storm about to shatter her life.
A few metres away, elderly men from Meena's tribe gathered in a compound to settle a dispute between her family and another.
The jirga, or tribal council, in the north-western region, was convened to punish her brother, who had eloped with a girl.
As the meeting ended, some men rushed towards Meena and took her away, leaving behind her dolls lying on the field.
The seven-year-old cried and called for help but no one came forward, not even her father and brothers.
The scene, as recorded in a video obtained by women's advocacy group Aurat Foundation, is typical of the centuries-old custom of marrying girls off to men of rival families to settle disputes.
“It is horrible but still exists” in all parts of the country, said Samar Minallah, another rights activist who has been campaigning to eliminate the practice.
Since 2005, trading girls has been a specific crime in Pakistan, Islamabad-based lawyer Rizwan Khan explained, carrying a penalty of up to 10 years in prison.
Last week, police in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa arrested members of a jirga and families after five women and girls, including minors, were traded in Swat, a district once controlled by the Taliban, district police chief Sher Akbar Khan said.
But there was little police could do in remote areas, he said.
Minallah said the involvement of politically influential people in tribal councils creates problems.
Human rights activists say the custom had its origin in an Islamic concept of “badl-e-sulah”, where blood money is paid to the family of victims in case of murder or other crimes.
Minallah said those who could not afford to give money or land find it easy to give away daughters.
But a religious scholar said Islam does not allow someone to be punished for another's crime.
“Islam says the one who commits a crime should be punished,” said Mufti Muhammad Ashraf. “Not his sister or daughter.”
Official statistics showed that more than 90 cases have reached the Supreme Court since the 2005 law was enacted.
But activists said under-reporting is still a problem, and most of the cases from remote areas do not attract attention, leaving girls at the mercy of their families.
“Girls are forced to go with the men of rival families,” Minallah said. “If they refuse, they might be killed.”
Girls are mostly mistreated in their new houses, said Minallah, who has been documenting such cases from all over Pakistan.
Sheeren Javed, who works for the Aurat Foundation advocacy group, said the cultural norms needs to be changed.
“Laws and police action alone will not solve the problem, we need to work in a way that society rejects such customs by its collective consciousness,” she said.
Minallah proposed more stringent implementation of laws to punish influential people whose patronage of tribal councils allow the practice to flourish.
Lawyer Khan said the legal punishment was not harsh enough, considering that the life of a child can completely ruined.
“The punishment should be an effective deterrent if the idea is to really eliminate this custom,” he said.