Practices that appear at first to be ill considered, backward or downright cruel become altogether more understandable if you can put yourself in the situation of a rural Afghan.
In July last year a video became public that showed the anguish suffered by a young girl when she was being forced into marriage. There’s a link to it below but do beware that it’s disturbing. I’m fairly insensitive in a male kind of way but I couldn’t watch it to the end because I found it too upsetting.
Video of young girl being forced into marriage (Warning you might find this content upsetting) – facebook.com/haidarifekrat/videos/1112476655550937
But it prompted me to write this blog about child marriage in Afghanistan. Our project manager in Kabul, Najia Nabil, also wrote one after we asked her for some background info for my blog. Please read Najia’s blog as well because her viewpoint is obviously closer to the ground than mine.
Afghans marry earlier than we do, some 30% of girls marrying before 18. But the more disturbing statistic, according to a recent survey conducted by UNICEF, is that 16% are married off before the age of 15.
In Afghanistan, as in the UK, the legal age of marriage is 16 for a girl. Numerous attempts by different rulers over the last 100 years have outlawed child marriages; most recently, a 2009 statute criminalised the practice. The government has done its bit but the difficulty is that, in general, the law is very unevenly applied in Afghanistan. The police are not respected and can often be bribed to look the other way.
Most marriages are still arranged by parents although this is changing. But, you ask, why would any caring parent marry their daughter off in their early teens?
The biggest challenge that we face running the Linda Norgrove Foundation is crossing that cultural divide and understanding how the viewpoint of Afghans varies from our own. Time and again, practices that appear at first to be ill considered, backward or downright cruel become altogether more understandable when and if you can put yourself in the situation of a rural Afghan.
So, why do Afghans marry their girls off before the age of 16?
There appears to be several reasons.
Firstly, just downright poverty. A significant proportion of Afghans, especially in remote rural provinces, are malnourished, if not starving. When a girl is married, her parents receive a ‘bride price’ or Toyana of around two years’ per capita income, and then there’s one less mouth to feed. Selling your daughter is abhorrent, but what if you’re close to starving?
Secondly, girls are given to resolve inter-family disputes, a long standing, if illegal, practice called Baad. Family honour in Afghanistan possesses an importance that seems bizarre to us but is incredibly real to them. Vendettas between families leading to escalating bloodshed that can sometimes be resolved by giving a daughter to the other family as a gift, tying two families together.
The third reason is the traditional practice of Badal, marriage by exchange, which offsets marriage costs and strengthens familial ties. One version is the marriage of first cousins, a fairly common practice. Marriage costs can be enormous. In Kabul, marriage ceremonies can involve meals, long speeches, and dancing, with men in one hall and women in another. Guest lists can top 1,500 and the bridegroom spends the next few years paying it off.
And finally, parents are held responsible for their daughter’s safety and virtue. Should something happen to her, the parents are blamed, the family is shunned and might be forced to move out of their area. In insecure provinces there is no effective police force, many guns and even more totally sex-starved young men. By marrying your daughter you unload this worry.
None of the above gets close to a good enough reason for arranging marriage of an underage daughter, but maybe it does go some way to explain why the practice has not died out.
Here at LNF we can help in many ways. We can affect the status of women in Afghan society by paying for scholarships for young girls and women, funding medical help for victims of horrific domestic abuse, helping women to become economically more self-reliant, even by helping girls climb mountains and build their confidence and self-esteem. We have been able to do these with your support.
None of these things will solve all the problems that Afghan girls and women face, but every journey starts with the first step and every little intervention pushes things in the right direction.