MIRPUR KHAS, Pakistan (AP) — The mother rummages through a large metal trunk, searching for a picture of her young daughter taken away in the night to be the bride of a man who says the family owed him $1,000.
Beneath the blankets, clothes and silver ornaments that she wears with her sari, Ameri Kashi Kohli finds two photos, carefully wrapped in plastic, of her smiling daughters.
Ameri tries to remember her daughter Jeevti’s age; few of this country’s desperately poor have birth certificates. With a grin at a sudden recollection she says, “I remember her sister, my youngest, was born when there was a big earthquake in Pakistan.”
That was 2005. Jeevti was 3 years old at the time, Ameri says. That means the girl was just 14 when she disappeared into the hands of the land manager her parents were beholden to.
Her mother is sure that Jeevti paid the price for a never-ending debt.
Ameri says she and her husband borrowed roughly $500 when they first began to work on the land, but she throws up her hands and says the debt was repaid. “We started with a loan, and every time they said they were taking money for our loan, but no one gave us anything to show we paid.” Instead, the debt doubled.
It’s a familiar story here in southern Pakistan: Small loans balloon into impossible debts, bills multiply, payments are never deducted.
In this world, women like Ameri and her young daughter are treated as property: taken as payment for a debt, to settle disputes, or as revenge if a landowner wants to punish his worker. Sometimes parents, burdened by an unforgiving debt, even offer their daughters as payment.
The women are like trophies to the men. They choose the prettiest and the young and pliable. Sometimes they take them as second wives to look after their homes. Sometimes they use them as prostitutes to earn money. Sometimes they take them simply because they can.
Ameri says she has heard stories of other workers whose daughters disappeared, in a country that sees an estimated 1,000 girls like them taken each year. Now, even though she and her family live elsewhere after being tossed out of their home, she’s afraid that her 11-year-old could be taken too.
And like everything else in her life, as a Hindu in a Muslim country, as a woman who is among the poorest of the poor, she knows she will be powerless to stop it from happening.
“I went to the police and to the court. But no one is listening to us,” Ameri says. She says the land manager made her daughter convert to Islam and took the girl as his second wife. “They told us, ‘Your daughter has committed to Islam and you can’t get her back.'”
Ameri works as a day laborer cutting sugar cane and feed for animals in Pakistan’s southern Sindh province, a region dominated by powerful landowners whose holdings stretch for hundreds of acres.
Narrow dirt tracks weave through vast fields where Hindu women in colorful saris squat with small scythes to cut the crops. There’s no talking. Occasionally the women stop for a drink of water. They make less than a dollar a day.
Like Ameri, they’re often indebted to the owner of the land on which they work, kept as virtual slaves until they pay back their debt, which almost never happens.
More than 2 million Pakistanis live as “modern slaves,” according to the 2016 Global Slavery Index, which ranks Pakistan in the top three offending countries that still enslave people, some as farm workers, others at brick kilns or as household staff. Sometimes the workers are beaten or chained to keep them from fleeing.
“They have no rights, and their women and girls are the most vulnerable,” says Ghulam Hayder whose Green Rural Development Organization works to free Pakistan’s bonded laborers.
Employers sexually assault the women and girls, marry them, force them to convert, and rarely will the police intervene, he says. He recalls a case in which a husband accused a landowner of sexually assaulting his wife. The landowner held him for three days, beat him and released him with a warning to tell no one.
An estimated 1,000 young Christian and Hindu girls, most of them underage and impoverished, are taken from their homes each year, converted to Islam and married, said a report by the South Asia Partnership organization.
“They always take the pretty ones,” Hayder says.
The night Jeevti disappeared, the family had slept outside, the only way to endure the brutal summer heat. In the morning, she was gone. No one heard anything, her mother says.
The family turned to activist Veero Kohli to help free the girl.
Kohli, who isn’t related to the family, was born a slave. She fled bondage in 1999, walking for three days to safety and seeking out the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan to help her before returning to the landowner to recover her children and free eight other families.
Since then, Kohli has devoted herself to challenging Pakistan’s powerful landowners, liberating thousands of families from bonded labor. She has been beaten; her home has been burned down. She has been arrested on trumped-up charges. Her husband has been arrested, and three of her sons have been jailed.
Kohli’s defiance incenses many men in a country dominated by a centuries-old patriarchal culture: Whether victims of honor killings, forced into marriages or enslaved as a bonded laborers, a heavy burden falls on women in Pakistan.
“I know that they would like to kill me, but I will never stop fighting to free these people,’ says Kohli, a strapping woman nearly 6 feet tall.
Five months ago, she went with Ameri to the Piyaro Lundh police station to find her daughter. “Her mother was crying in the police station to let her see her daughter,” Kohli says.
They said the girl went willingly, Kohli says. “I told them: ‘Let me talk to her. Let her mother talk to her if she went freely.'” They refused.
Instead, they called in the man who Ameri said had taken her daughter. Hamid Brohi came alone, without the girl. “He said, ‘Anyway, she is payment for 100,000 rupees ($1,000) they owe me,'” Kohli recalls.
He said he had forgiven the family’s debt and tossed them off his land, Kohli says.
Now Kohli is returning to the same police station, a small, grubby concrete room with two desks jammed together and a rickety wooden cabinet piled high with files held together with string.
Police officer Aqueel Ahmed thumbs through a dozen files, barely containing his anger at the activist.
Finally, he pulls out an affidavit. In it, the girl, who now goes by the name Fatima, said she had converted and married Brohi of her own free will. She also said she couldn’t meet her mother because now she was Muslim and her family was Hindu.
Jeevti can neither read nor write; her signature on the statement she purportedly made of her own volition is a thumbprint.
There was no police investigation into Ameri’s allegation that her daughter was kidnapped, Ahmed says, nor was there any investigation into her age in a province where the legal age for marriage is 18.
“There was no cause to investigate. She said she went willingly. She said there was no coercion,” Ahmed says.
A second police officer, Riaz Hossain, says he knows of several other Hindu girls who converted willingly, too.
But Hindu activists say the girls are kept isolated until they have been forced to convert and are married – and then it’s almost too late to do anything. In Pakistani marriages, the husband has to give a woman the right to divorce; without that, she has no right to leave him.
A law passed last month outlaws forced conversions, but human rights groups say it’s practically impossible to prove that a conversion is forced because the girl invariably signs a statement saying she was willing. Police and judges almost never investigate, activists say, because many believe the conversions are a good thing and they would be defying their Muslim faith by even challenging one.
“So many girls, immature girls below the age of 18 years, mostly have been kidnapped,” says Ramesh Kumar Vankwani of the Pakistan Hindu Council.
He says families are routinely threatened, and without police protection, they abandon their daughters.
Ameri, the mother, says she has been threatened by both the police and the man who took her daughter. She has gone to five different courts to get her daughter back, and failed each time. But she hasn’t given up hope.
Police in a machine-gun-mounted jeep take Kohli, the activist, and a foreign reporter to visit the girl. Her mother doesn’t come, too afraid, she says, to confront the police in person again.
Brohi, a sullen-looking man with a thin mustache, greets the police with an embrace. He angrily denies he took Jeevti as payment for the family’s debt, despite his earlier boast to the activist that he had done just that. Instead, he insists he had an affair with the girl and married her. Kohli and her mother say there was no opportunity for that because Jeevti was always with her, even working in the fields.
Inside, Jeevti sits on a double mattress on the floor, her head wrapped in a black shawl. Brohi leaves his young wife alone but hangs outside the door, scowling at her.
Jeevti wears heavy eyeshadow and exaggerated bright red lipstick, like a child who has put on her mother’s makeup – or one who is attempting to look older. It is the middle of the afternoon, yet she looks like she has just stepped out of a wedding, dressed in a glittery outfit. She looks out of place in the stark room, in a dusty compound surrounded by mud walls; none of the other women here are dressed or made up like her.
Although she doesn’t seem afraid, her eyes dart to the door where her husband hovers. When she speaks, her words seem rehearsed and odd for a 14-year-old Pakistani.
“I married him because I wanted to,” she says. “I myself asked him that as we are lovers, we should get married. So he said, ‘Let’s get married,’ and I said yes.”
She says she left her home freely and denies that she hasn’t seen her mother since leaving. But she can’t say when she saw her mother last – or even where she lives now. She says she would be happy to see her mother but is quiet when asked why her court affidavit says she refused to talk to her mother because she had converted to Islam.
She says she doesn’t know what is in the court documents, although each one the police showed said Jeevti had spoken the words herself.
When asked about her name, she falters for a moment. She says that her Hindu name was Jeevti, smiling slightly, as if remembering her past. But now, she says, she is Fatima.
Finally, it is time to leave. Police, who have remained outside, sipping tea with Brohi’s father and other men, escort the visitors back to the nearby village.
The visitors return the next day — without police escort.
Inside the compound where Jeevti was the day before, there are only women, and no one knows Fatima. They are friendly, but look confused when the girl is mentioned. The door to the room where she sat the day before is padlocked. It is as if the compound was but a stage set for the previous visit.
Within seconds, the police call a Pakistani colleague’s cellphone: “Why did you go there? What do you want? Why did you not stop first at the police?”
Kohli says she will keep fighting for the girl in court but has little hope of getting her back.
At her new home, her mother looks at the trunk full of memories of Jeevti.
“I still have the clothes she wore, her dresses,” she says. “I am her mother. She is my child. How can I forget her?”