CHILD BRIDES IN AFGHANISTAN: Overview of Situation, Challenges and Options
Betrothal of girls is pervasive in Afghanistan. According to the Ministry of Public Healths Mortality Survey that was conducted in all provinces of the country in 2010, 53 percent of all women in the 25 to 49 age group were married by age 18, and 21 percent were married by age 15. A report on Child Marriage in Southern Asia conducted by the International Center for Research on Women, Australian Aid and UNFPA states that 57 percent of Afghan girls are married before they turn 16 and 60 to 80 percent of them were forced into such unions by their families.
Marriage of girl children seriously impedes the full development of Afghan girls potentials. They are forced to stop schooling, take care of their husband, children and aging in-laws, and assume multiple domestic responsibilities which are particularly onerous in Afghanistan because the supply of water, power, and other living amenities are nearly non-existent in most rural areas. The alarmingly high incidence of maternal mortality in Afghanistan is also an aftermath of girl marriages. Many teen mothers perish due to underdeveloped reproductive system, poor health awareness, inaccessible health services, and lack of female health practitioners that are needed in a society which does not allow female patients to be treated by male physicians. A 2010 report reveals that maternal mortality in the country is ten times higher than civilian deaths caused by armed conflict. On top of these, girl wives are constantly victimized by violence perpetrated by their husband and in-laws. Aside from domestic slavery, they may also be forced to provide sexual services to other men, coerced into untimely and frequent pregnancy, and denied of fundamental rights such as proper food, shelter, access to education and health, mobility and decision making.
The persistence of child bride practice is fuelled by many factors. A culture of patriarchy that relegates Afghan women to a lifetime of subordination makes their situation one of the worst in the world - generally discriminated in opportunities and allocation of family resources, overburdened by domestic responsibilities, vulnerable to violence inside and outside their homes, and denied of their rights to inheritance, mobility, education, decision making, and participation in public life. It is this debased status of women that legitimizes the authority of parents to marry off girls before reaching the legally mandated age. Girl brides fetch high dowry and girls who refuse face the risk of being murdered by their family members. Moreover, it is considered disgraceful for an Afghan woman to grow old without being offered a marriage proposal.
Likewise, the poor state of Afghan economy reinforces the practice of girl child marriage. The economic base of many Afghan families was eroded by long years of armed conflict. During the war, families used up their savings moving from place to place, often without sources of livelihood and economic support. Earning opportunities vanished along with peoples skills and economic capital. Thus, where earnings from agriculture and livestock are inadequate, marriage of girls loomed as a convenient economic alternative. Child brides command a higher dowry because youth is equated with purity, innocence, freshness, and better reproductive capacity. Besides, a child-wife is far easier to subdue, manipulate, exploit and abuse. Parents may also be motivated to marry off their girl daughters to repay debt, settle conflicts, or boost the familys social standing.
A weak rule of law is another major factor that sustains the practice of girl child marriage. Many years of lawlessness has been making it difficult for government to bring citizens under the rule of law. People have been so used to living the traditional way of life where unlawful acts may be legitimized through complicity of community religious leaders. Lack of awareness of the law, weak implementation mechanisms, and strong influence of fundamentalism continue to make the law useless, leaving girls with little or no protection at all when betrothed by their parents. Afghan civil law provides that a girl cannot marry until she is 16 unless her father chooses her to marry at 15. However, in reality, Afghan girls are married much earlier, even as early as 9 years old. All of these are considered to be under coercion since children do not have the legal capacity to give consent to their own marriage. Although child and forced marriages are prohibited under the decree on the Elimination of Violence against Women, no parent has ever been punished for marrying off their girl daughters and traditions are obviously stronger than the political commitment to implement the law.
With the transformation of the family abode as a main site of violence against women, recourse for victims has been limited. Shelters and services are inaccessible, police and justice systems work against female complainants, and society expects wives to endure in silence the oppression they experience from their husband and relatives. Unfortunately, Afghanistans current political climate does not leave much room to be optimistic on the options that could be taken to stop the practice of child marriage. The on-going peace process is bringing back the Taliban whose increasing influence threatens to erode the gains that Afghan women generated during the past 12 years. The international security support is also scheduled to leave the country by the end of 2014. People are more pessimistic these days but losing hope is not an option.
To address the situation, womens groups must persist in championing and monitoring the status of womens situation in Afghanistan. On the part of the government, the prohibition on underage marriage should be enforced strictly. Authorities who officiate marriages must be sensitized and held accountable, together with parents who prematurely betroth their daughters and sons. To demonstrate the illegal nature of this practice, the government should jail parents and mullahs who legitimize underage marriages. Registration of application for marriages should also be strictly enforced so that authorities could intervene to prevent the child bride practice. Alternative economic opportunities for families must be made available to parents who choose to desist from child bride practice. There should also be college scholarships for young girls that are tied up to a condition that they will not be married until the college education is completed. Women NGOs, government agencies, and human rights bodies must collaborate to pursue a community based rescue program for girls who are forced into marriage by their parents.
People should collectively promote womens rights in all possible areas of life, especially within families. Families should transform gender dynamics within family members and socialize girls and boys to a culture that is based on mutual respect and support. Classroom lessons and associations of parents and teachers must take up child marriage as a priority issue for collective action. Media should educate the public on the legal prohibitions against child marriage and religious leaders should be targeted as advocates for its prevention.
The international community should continue to follow up closely the events and developments, and oppose all forms of Afghan womens oppression. All funding support to the peace and reconstruction of Afghanistan should be linked to womens advancement and help in holding the Afghan government accountable for its continuing failure to protect, fulfill, and promote the rights of women and children. The solution may not happen easily but it could begin now.
 Dr. Massouda Jalal is founding President of Jalal Foundation, a non-profit organization with 50 NGOs and women council members throughout Afghanistan that promote the protection of Afghan womens rights, leadership and participation in politics and public life. A medical doctor, Dr. Jalal is a decorated political activist, non-traditional leader and former Minister of Women and Legislator. She holds the distinction of being the first Afghan woman to run as Presidential candidate
 The Government of the Republic of Afghanistan, Philippine Development Plan for the Women of Afghanistan, 2008-2018.
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