The girl called Jeevti was just 14 when she was taken from her family in the night to be married off to a man who says her family owed him US$1,000.
Her mother, Ameri Kashi Kohli, is sure that her daughter paid the price for a never-ending debt.
Ameri says she and her husband borrowed roughly US$500 when they first began to work on the land, but she throws up her hands and says the debt was repaid.
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, 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.
“I went to the police and to the court. But no one is listening to us,” says Ameri, who is Hindu. 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.’”
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 Organisation works to free Pakistan’s bonded labourers.
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 organisation.
Hayder says, “They always take the pretty ones.”
The night Jeevti disappeared, the family had slept outside, the only way to endure the brutal summer heat here in southern Sindh province. 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. Since fleeing bondage in 1999, she has devoted herself to challenging Pakistan’s powerful landowners, liberating thousands of families from bonded labour.
Kohli’s defiance incenses many men in a country dominated by a centuries-old patriarchal culture.
“I know that they would like to kill me, but I will never stop fighting to free these people,” she says.
Five months ago, she went with Ameri to the Piyaro Lundh police station to find her daughter. 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 [US$1,000] they owe me’,” Kohli recalls.
Now Kohli is returning to the same police station, where 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 freely 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.
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.
Under pressure, police in a jeep mounted with a machine gun finally take Kohli 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 moustache, 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.
Inside, Jeevti sits on a double mattress on the floor, her head wrapped in a black shawl. She 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.
Although she doesn’t seem afraid, her eyes dart to the door where her husband hovers. When she speaks, her words seem rehearsed.
“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 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 that the family has fled its old home. She 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 the police said Jeevti had spoken the words herself.
The next day, the visitors return – without a police escort.
Inside the compound, there are only women, and no one knows Fatima. 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 a young girl’s performance.