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Fighting child marriages in Afghanistan

As the UN marks International Day of the Girl Child on Thursday, the focus this year is on ending child marriages.
Last modified: 11 Oct 2012 11:52

They left in the middle of the night, because their husbands and their husbands’ families were mistreating them.

These girls hadn't chosen marriage, their families forced them into it as children. Nouria* was 11 years old when her father married her to a man with mental problems. Her family received $7,000 for the transaction.

She says her husband wasn't mentally competent enough to consummate the marriage. She wanted a divorce but said her husband’s relatives were conservative and part of the Taliban in Wardak province where she lived.

After 5 years, she ran away. She sought shelter with neighbors, who put her in touch with the Ministry of Women’s affairs.

Now she lives in a women’s shelter in Kabul. She has asked her husband for a divorce. He appeared in court once, but the judge didn’t grant the divorce immediately. He refuses to come to court again.

Afghan law says she now must wait three and a half years to divorce her husband. Nouria believes that law is unfair and wants the government to help her.

"I just want to make my own life now," she says.

“What did I do wrong? They should punish my husband and father, not me.”

Nouria is not alone. Despite a 2009 'Law on Elimination of Violence against Women' that mandates jail terms for forcing underage girls or any woman into a marriage, the practice is still widespread.

Wazhma Frogh, an Afghan women’s rights advocate in Kabul, says forced marriage is common even among educated families and in urban areas.

“I think I would call child marriage a national crisis for Afghanistan, because it’s not one province, it’s not one ethnicity, it’s not one family, it’s actually, it happens everywhere,” she says.

Frogh says public awareness has risen, thanks to media campaigns, news stories and radio and TV dramas that address the subject of forced and child marriages.

It’s encouraged more girls and women to run away. While there are shelters, most in Kabul or other urban areas, there is no systematic solution to the problem.

The women end up in limbo, like Nouria, waiting for a divorce, unable to work or even go outside the shelter for fear of retribution from the family.

Many women and girls have been murdered by their husband’s family or their own, for running away and bringing shame to the family. Afghan society shuns divorced women, they find it difficult to get jobs, their children are often taken from them.

Frogh says because there’s no institutional system to help women, she encourages some women and girls to go back to their husbands if the situation is bearable, and their lives are not in danger.

Hamida* was 12 years old when her uncle killed someone. To appease the dead man’s family, she was given to his brother to marry.

During their 5 years of marriage she bore him two children. Her husband mistreated her, so she went home to her father. Her husband kept the children Unusually, her first husband gave her a divorce.

Hamida’s father then married her to an older man when she turned 18. He too mistreated her, and after 2 years she ran to the police.

She told the police if they didn't help her, she would commit suicide. The police turned her over to the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and she too lives in a women’s shelter, spending her days learning to read and write Dari – she never went to school. And learning how to sew, so she might have a skill when her divorce comes through. She sports an almost perpetual smile.

“It’s up to us,” she says. “We have to be brave. We have to use the laws that protect us. I’m glad I left. My family can’t hurt me anymore.”

*Names have been changed to protect their identities.