By Mubasher Bukhari
LAHORE (Reuters) - Pakistani police rescued a nine-year-old girl from being married off to a 14-year-old boy to settle a family dispute on Friday and arrested four village elders who had ordered the "compensation wedding".
The intervention in Pakistan's largest province, Punjab, is rare in a country where it is often culturally acceptable to use marriage to build and strengthen alliances, settle disputes or pay off debts.
Police arrested all four members of the village council who had decreed that the girl be given in vani, or compensation marriage, to settle a dispute between two families in Rahim Yar Khan district of Punjab province.
"The girl's brother's wife died due to some health problems a few weeks ago, and (the wife's) relatives suspected foul play and accused her family of murder," deputy superintendent of police Mamoonur Rasheed told Reuters.
"On March 3, the village council decided to give the little girl in vani to settle the suspected murder."
The council decided that the girl would be married to a 14-year-old cousin of her brother's deceased wife, while the brother would pay 150,000 rupees ($1,430) to his dead wife’s family.
Three percent of girls in Pakistan are married before they turn 15 and 21 percent before the age of 18, according to UNICEF data.
The parents of child brides are often poor and use marriage as a way to provide for their daughter's future, especially in areas where there are few economic opportunities for women.
In January, a powerful religious body that advises the government on the compatibility of laws with Islam blocked a bill to impose harsher penalties for marrying off girls as young as eight or nine.
Under existing laws, parents of child brides are punishable by only a month in prison and a fine of 1,000 rupees ($10).
(Writing by Mehreen Zahra-Malik; Editing by Nick Macfie)