This Byte contains descriptions of violence and may be triggering to some readers.
Imagine you're a 17-year old girl. One day you hear from your mother that you have a marriage proposal from a family to potentially wed their son.
But as you fearfully inquire about the situation, she lays down another fact on you: your brother also has to marry within the same family, to their daughter. Your and your brother's futures are now dependent on this one family!
This isn't some bad dream but a reality for many households across Pakistan and Afghanistan, where a custom called shighar or watta satta is practiced. According to custom, a brother-sister pair, uncle-niece pair, or cousin pair will be wed to other pairs in another family.
This practice is a way to control what happens in a marriage. It's meant to reduce domestic violence but often leads to reciprocal abuse and violence. If a daughter is treated badly in a home, her brother will make sure that his wife is treated the same. It's really a form of threat or control.
What does a Watta Satta marriage look like?
In most cases, sibling pairs don't consent to marry other sibling pairs. It's pushed and forced on them by their families
Often, very young girls get roped into such exchange marriages.
This makes marriage a trade or transaction instead of a loving union between two people.
While the custom is practiced to protect family members, it often leads to domestic abuse.
Why do they continue to happen?
Both couples don't have an exit or divorce option, because ending the marriage may have an impact on the other sibling's marriage.
It's been happening for so many decades that most people can't differentiate if it's a cultural, social, or religious practice.
Watta satta or exchange marriage happens because of:
Which countries practice bride exchanges?
While this practice is most popular in rural Afghanistan and Pakistan, there are many other countries where it's practiced with a different name and form.
It's mostly done in communities where poverty and illiteracy are high. For instance, there are many cases reported of bride exchanges in India, Sudan, and in rarer cases in Mali, Saudia Arabia, and Yemen.
What are potential outcomes for watta satta marriages?
In June 2019 in Tandlianwala, a seven-year-old girl was exchanged in marriage to a 28-year-old man named Fareed, and Fareed's sister was married to the girl’s brother Raheel. The child fled when she was repeatedly abused by her husband.
In Jan 2017, another case was reported in Mansehra where a 2-year-old girl was married to a seven-year-old boy.
In another case reported in July 2020, a woman named Waziran Chhacchar was married knowing that her 8-year-old brother would eventually marry her husband’s 5-year-old niece. But when one of the families went back on their word, Chachhar was stoned to death by her husband and his relatives. She was pregnant at the time of her death.
What can I do to help stop bride exchanges?