In 2009, reports from the Human Rights Watch, UN Women and UNICEF, stated that 57 per cent of all the brides of Afghanistan were under the age of sixteen, even though Article 70 of the Afghan’s Civil Code establishes sixteen as the age of marriage for girls and eighteen for boys.1 This paper is a brief study of the causes and effects of child marriage, the lives of child brides and Afghan women’s resistance against it. Even though both boys and girls are subject to child marriage, child brides lose more to early marriages and there are more child brides than grooms; therefore, this paper will focus mostly on the lives of girls subject to early marriage.
Despite increase in the efforts for midwife trainings across the country by organizations such as Agha Khan Development Network, Care and many other organizations, Afghanistan is still the second worst place on earth in terms of maternal mortality with 1,800 out of 10,000 women losing their life during child birth (UNICEF, 2009). 2 This is because, child marriage continues to be one of the major reasons for high maternal mortality, as children, under the age of 14, are four times more likely that physically matured women to lose their lives during child labor. In addition to increasing risks of maternal mortality, child marriage prevents many children in Afghanistan from one of the fundamental rights, education.
A number of child brides are not able to continue schooling after marriage. One of the reasons for this is that the Education Law of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan does not allow married women to continue schooling with single ones. Unlike the laws that protect women against early marriages, like law on Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW), this law, passed in 1970s, has been implemented. In 2003, over a thousand married girls were expelled from schools, due to fear of corruption of the minds of young children with explicit stories about sex.3 Assuming that children are protected against profanity outside schools, this law prevents a large number of women in Afghanistan from continuing their education, which in turn, prevents them from the possibility of employment and economic independence. However, it is not just the law that prevents child brides from accessing education; customs and tradition also consider it a dishonor for a married woman to continue schooling, and, in most cases, leaving the house of the husband without permission over all. Housework, which is often considered the job of the bride, also prevents child brides from being able to attend schools.
Given all the obvious risks of child marriage, why does it still continue? There are many reasons for the prevalence of child marriage in Afghanistan. Lack of security and poverty are the two reasons most used to explain selling little girls, but the main reason for this tradition is business flavored with misogyny. To examine why child marriage continues to happen, this paper studies a few cases.
Shakira is probably twenty-one. She was married at the age of fifteen and has four children, all below the age of seven. Her father, Mullah and traditional healer at their rural area of Juzjan, has seven children. His youngest sons, fourteen and nine, go to the local schools, while his youngest daughter, seven, he says, “stays home to assist her mother with housework.” She comes from a middle-upper class with acres and acres of land and tens of livestock. Shakira had to stop going to school after her engagement, even though the local high school is less than twenty minutes away from her home. She had not spoken a full sentence to her fiancé before marriage and was more eager to be a teenager at high school than a housewife.
The story of Shakira and her sister is not unique in Afghanistan, but what is striking about her story is none of the common excuses, poverty or insecurity, can be used to justify her marriage at a very young age. Shakira was sold in exchange to nearly four thousand dollars. In addition to that, the bride and her family received gold and silver and clothing before, during and after the wedding night in different celebrations. Shakira’s marriage was a business deal powered by patriarchal beliefs that prevented her from an education and thought her fit only to become a housewife.
Another story is that of Ghulam, which is a common name meaning, “slave.” A photo of her wrapped in a bright pink scarf shows her by her husband, who could easily pass for her father.4 A photo of her, taken by Stephanie Sinclair, won the UNICEF award in 2007. She was married when eleven due to her family’s poverty. Instead of allowing Ghulam to continue her education, the family decided to sell Ghulam for quick money. Getting an education could lead to her employment as a teacher in the local school which is deprived of female educators and another source of income for the family.
In October 2007, Sunam, a three-year-old girl was engaged to her seven-year-old cousin, Naem. In one of her engagement photos, you can see her white veil covering her face and yellow embroidery and embellishment shine on her white dress.5 Her little brown hands are holding three or four red plastic flowers. The kinds of Sunam’s engagement are common, though not always celebrated in a party. A tradition in many Afghan societies allows the families to engage two children, sometimes even before they are born, to each other. The engagement often leads to a marriage when both parties reach an age seemed appropriate by the families. This tradition is called “Naami kardan” in Dari. The police cracked down this engagement, but most ceremonies of the kind go under heard. The rights of both Sunam and Naem are violated as this engagement takes place. However, as the girl, Sunam is most likely to get married under the age of 16, like 57% of Afghan girls, leave school and get pregnant before the age of eighteen. Naem will be able to continue school and might even pursue a college education, given he will not be responsible for the house chores and taking care of the future children.
Another reason marriages at an early age are favored in Afghanistan is to prevent the girls from engaging with boys and men, love affairs, relationships and a possible lose of virginity. While there are almost no stigmas attached to the virginity of men before marriage, cultural beliefs make virginity a must for women until marriage. Adultery and fornication can lead to severe violence, stoning. Saddiqa and Hakim were stoned in January of 2011 for adultery in Kunduz by locals after the tribal court decided the sentence.6 In April of 2003, Amina, a twenty nine year old was stoned to death in Badakhshan for adultery, while the man was freed after being flogged.7 In addition to that, adultery and fornication is also punished by imprisonment of women in Afghanistan. While the men are often granted freedom, 95% of the women in Afghan prisons are there fore committing “moral crimes,” including adultery, being raped, running away from their abusive families, or being seen in public with men.8 A woman pays highly for lack of a hymen, which is considered the proof to one’s virginity in Afghanistan. Therefore, instead of changing the social structure to one where women are not violated, stoned or imprisoned for lack of an arbitrary definition of virginity, families marry girls off early to prevent dishonor to their families and protect the girls from facing any of the above brutalities. Child marriages do not prevent violence against or self-immolation of women. It just allows the families a justification for making money out of the marriage without having to really face the social restrictions that make the lives of women unsafe.
They bride price starts at $1,000 and go as high as $20,000, making child marriage a very successful business. Shakira and Ghulam were sold. Sunam was married based on a tradition. These three cases do not explain every reason for child marriage, but they provide insight into the social constructs and cultural beliefs that allow this tradition to live. The process of the engagement and the marriage of these children are very similar to a tradition, once common in many countries including the United States of America, slavery. A woman is trained in doing the chores, being and being obedient, she is kept a virgin, and then she is sold without her consent and she has to leave behind nearly everything that existed in her life: education, her family, her friends and her childhood!
Even after marriage, the life of a child bride today in Afghanistan bears a striking similarity to that of a female slave in the United States of America during the seventeenth century. Like slaves, most of these children face violence after marriage. According to the Human Rights Council, 90% of Afghan women face violence.9 For example, Gulsum, a 16 year old, tried to commit suicide after several severe beatings by her husband, who was addicted to heroin and alcohol.10 According to Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, there were one hundred and eighty four recorded cases of self-immolation in 2007 and the most common reason for this has been identified as violence.11 Like that of child marriages, the majority of self-immolation cases go unheard and unrecorded.
The child brides are subject to forced labor and sexual intercourse. They are expected to do house chores and are often punished for not being able to provided the labor forced on them. They often face marital rape, or in other words sexual slavery. Culturally, marital rape is not considered rape because a woman is considered the property of her husband and therefore the husband is given permission to violate her whenever he desires. In the beginning of 2011, a man sold his eight-year-old girl to a policeman. While making the agreement, the policeman had agreed to not have sex with the child, but a few weeks later, the father of the child complained to the bridegroom’s family, because the policeman had not kept his promise.12
The child brides are expected to bear children. In many cases, when they fail to do so, they face more violence in addition to humiliation. Mariam, married at the age of eleven, was beaten severely by her husband and her mother-in-law for the first time when she failed to conceive a child. At the age of thirteen, Mariam ran away from her husband’s house and ended up in a shelter in Kabul with the help of a police officer.13 Mariam’s story is an example of the brutality that Afghan child brides have to live through if they cannot do everything expected of them. Similarily, Shameem, who was married in her teenage years, was beaten and raped after she and her husband were not able to conceive a child. After beating her daily violence with electrical wires and metal, Shameem’s husband, attempted to kill her when she resisted rape by screaming. He took her to the graveyard where her little sister, killed by her husband at the age of 11, was buried and than raped her brutally in a place considered holy, the shrine.14 Like Mariam, Shamim lives in a shelter ran by Women for Afghan Women in Kabul.
The stories of Mariam, Shameem, Shakira and many others whose names are never mentioned are living testimonies to a misogynistic, brutal and inhumane tradition that is not very different from slavery, child marriage. Like any other system of oppression, this once remains because someone benefits from it. The chauvinist business of child marriage robes girls of their childhood while bringing money to the girl’s family, a servant to the buyer’s family and a sex slave and childbirth machine to the so-called husband. The only party ignored in this formula is the three-year-old Sunam, the eight-year-old Mariam, Mariam’s six-year-old sister who awaits a future similar to her sisters, the sixteen-year-old Gulsum and others of their kind.
Unlike the stories of Shameem and Gulsum, statistics about beaten, violated, raped, killed, stoned, and imprisoned women say little about the lives that these heroines struggle through, without gaining recognition as human beings. The statistics allow for victimization of these children, but it is a misjudgment to believe that the women in these stories are merely victims. They are survivors and fighters, whose stories and actions are the beginning of breaking the culture.
An example of Afghan child brides’ resistance is Sakina, from Ghor, who escaped her forced marriage at the age of thirteen, was returned to her village and flogged in public by locals, but she was not one to give up. Now, she lives at a hidden shelter in Kabul.15 With the help of the shelter, she is seeks divorce and wants to get an education. Like Sakina, Mariam also ran away and now lives at a shelter in Kabul, and is persistent to get a divorce and study. Sakina, who spent seven months in jail for running away from her forced marriage, lives at a shelter in Bamyan.16 Shelters like the one ran by Women for Afghan Women, which houses 350 women per years, provide literacy classes and safety to hundreds of women who have summoned to courage to resist their abusive lives. Many of these women leave their houses without any plan of where to go, often they are sent to prison by the police, and sometimes they are returned to their families to face more violence, and sometimes even death. Despite the risks, these brave women step out of the houses making a statement that they no longer accept the life of a slave. This message is also portrayed in the songs of poetry of these women.
In addition to fleeing abuse and child marriage, another means of resistance of Afghan women that has not received much attention is women’s oral traditions in terms of songs and poetry. When women speak up against incidents of violence, forced marriages or tell their love stories, they are often silenced in a traditional Afghan community. However, because women only sing in all-female gatherings, they are able to talk about their problems openly through their songs. Afghan women’s songs are the equivalent of slave narratives. They carry strong messages of struggle, perseverance and the defiance of the status quo. Forced and early marriages are of the most common themes of songs among young women, who fear having to depart their families and friends when they are married or being forced to marry men they do not love.
The songs also portray the complex relationships between mothers and daughters are portrayed. Sometimes the mother is described as an ally who protects the daughter against oppression, and other times the mothers are condemned for siding with the male family members who support the forced marriage. In some other couplets, there is a disappointment towards the mothers because young girls view them as supporters and defenders and they feel betrayed when their mothers are unable to rescue them from a forced marriage. In addition to that, security issues, lack of roads and traditions and customs, prevent most women in the rural areas to travel alone and therefore many they are not able to visit their parents and siblings often after their marriage. In the quatrains below a bride sings to her mother about her frustration and suffering as she is married by force to someone who lives far from her house.
Mother! Mother, why did you raise me?
You breastfed me and you oppressed me
Do not feed me milk and injustice.
Do not send me away to a distant place.
Oh mother, you married me off to a place far from you.
I did not agree; you gave me away by force.
I did not agree; you listened to my father.
I feel as if I have been sent off to a bee hive.
A similar couplet voices a brides’ complaint against being married too early. She calls herself a “child” and says that she had had plans and goals other than marriage. The singer of this couplet is very blunt about how she views early marriage as a waste of youth.
Oh mother, you put a ring around my finger
You engaged me when I was a child
You did not allow me to fulfill my objectives
Alas, I have lost my youth.
Mothers are also referred to as shelters against oppression and often newly married women sing about how their life is empty without that shelter after they are married off, given that wives usually move in with the husbands’ families. In several of the couplets, the husband’s house is described as “strange” and “unfamiliar” and girls speak of their desire to return to their mother’s house, where they feel freer and safer. The couplet below expresses the nostalgia of a girl for her parent’s house and for the mother, with whom the daughter has a special relationship, after her marriage.
Like a singing bird caged by the stems of wheat,
I cry “damn the strangers’ small yards.”
Where is my father’s yard for me to walk freely?
Or my mother’s handkerchief so I can tie my head?
These couplets, like hundred others sang by women in Afghanistan, express values and wishes that are aligned with the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Even though the women who sing theses songs are not familiar with international conventions, do not call themselves “feminists” and their problems “violations of their rights,” and sing only to tell their stories, they speak up and advocate against early marriages in the grassroots level. This form of traditional and authentic advocacy for human rights has lasted hundreds of years and given women in the most rural areas the courage to struggle and raise their daughters with the hope that they will live in a better world and with more dignity.
Fifty seven percent of Afghan girls under the age of sixteen lose their childhood, education and dreams to a life filled with violence, forced labor, rape, and humiliation in exchange for a sum between 1,000 and 20,000 USD that their families will receive. Many of these children ran away but have no protection and end up in prisons or juvenile detention centers and only a limited number arrive a shelter safely. The shelters are also limited in the number of women they can support, and are often face pressure by the government and security threats. There needs to be a longer and more encompassing solution to child marriage and there is one, education and awareness. Even though this solution needs long-term investment and efforts, which is difficult to find in the project-oriented development programs in Afghanistan. Increasing the access to education can prevent child marriage; decrease violence, rape and other misogynistic practices. Almost all of the child brides mentioned in this article expressed a passion for getting an education and believed that an education will promise them a better life. Education delays marriage hence prevents some maternal mortality and can bring about an income for the woman of the family. An income is not important not just in the economical sense but also because it will allow the woman independence and the self-confidence that she does not have to live an abusive marriage because she can provide for herself and her children. An educated woman is more likely to encourage the education of her children and that woman can be the beginning of a change that will repeat itself generation after generation.
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