IWPR, November 7, 2016
Child Marriage Rife in Northern Afghanistan
Tribal elders say that most girls are married off before the age of 14
By Qayum Babak
An investigation by IWPR has revealed that child marriage remains rampant in the north of Afghanistan, with the local authorities warning that they are powerless to combat the practice.
Dozens of fathers and tribal elders interviewed in Balkh, Faryab, and Jowzjan provinces all said that most girls in their communities were married off between the ages of nine and 14.
The legal age for marriage in Afghanistan is 16, although it can be as low as 15 with parental consent.
Local officials and rights workers said that they had been unable to combat traditional practices that often led to young girls being married off to much older men for large sums of money.
The Afghanistan Human Rights Independent Commission (AIHRC) also confirmed that the practice was rampant.
Shah Mardanqal, a 70-year-old resident of Kata Qala village in the Pashton Kot district of Faryab province, said with satisfaction that he had married his 14-year old daughter to Sarwar Baik, 60, in return for 3,000 US dollars, a cow and 10 sheep.
“A girl should be married while she is still young,” he told IWPR. “Here, all parents earn money from their daughters’ marriages, I did too.”
Asked why he had forced his underage daughter to marry a 60-year-old man, he said, “A father who keeps his young daughter at home and doesn’t get her married commits a sin.”
Najmuddin, a 65-year-old resident of the village of Jin Mala in the Shibirghan district of Jowzjan province, also said he had no regrets about marrying off his three daughters when they were aged between 11 and 17 years old.
He added that he had received a total of 19,000 dollars in bride prices.
“I sold my daughters after the Islamic scholar in our village told me that the marriage of underage girls was not a sin in Islam,” Najmuddin continued.
He claimed that he would not have been forced to sell his daughters if government help would have been available to help lift his family out of poverty.
Najmuddin’s eldest daughter Runa was married at the age of 11 to a 40-year-old man called Adil, from the village of Pancharigh in Aqchah district.
“When I got married, I knew nothing. I didn’t even know what a husband was and what marriage involved,” she said. “I was very scared when I entered my husband’s house.”
Mohammad Bhai, another of Najmuddin’s three sons-in-law, said that he had paid 6,500 dollars for his younger daughter Firooza.
“Because Firooza was betrothed to marry me, I travelled to Iran and spent many years working to earn this much money,” he said.
Both parties’ consent to marriage is required in Islam for a wedding to be lawful. The ceremony must be carried out by a religious scholar in the presence of two witnesses.
Mawlawi Hanif, the scholar who conducted all three of Najmuddin’s daughters’ marriages, said that he had carried out dozens of such ceremonies involving underage girls in Shibirghan city.
He argued that Islam did not prohibit the marriage of girls.
“Whoever disputes this, I am ready to discuss it and challenge him,” he said.
Balkh director of women’s affairs Suhaila Hadid said she could not give exact figures for the number of child marriages in the region, but added, “I want to say that every day when I come to my office I face a new case of forced or underage marriage.”
Qazi Sayed Mohammad Sameh, head of the AIHRC regional office in Balkh, also said that child marriage was an ongoing crisis.
He said that figures from 2015 showed that 56 cases of forced marriages of underage girls had been registered in the northern provinces. He stressed, however, that this was just the tip of the iceberg.
“The cases of forced marriages of underage girls in remote areas and villages are much higher than we thought or expected,” he continued.
Sameh said that the cases that they registered related mostly to much older men who had paid large sums to marry young girls.
Such marriages, she continued, were due to poverty, illiteracy, and outdated traditions.
As a result, girls were deprived of their education and often felt they had no other option but to run away from home. Sometimes girls and older women went on to commit suicide. Complications from repeated and early pregnancies were also a serious issue.
The Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, enacted by presidential decree in 2009, prohibited a range of abuses including marriages that are coercive, involve minors or amount to a transaction between the two families. However, this law was rejected by parliament in May 2013, and has been shelved ever since.
Hasina Rastaqi, head of children’s rights support at the AIHRC, said that although they tried to educate the public on such issues it was nonetheless the government’s duty to take action against the practice.
“Preventing such forced and underage marriages is the government’s responsibility,” she continued, adding, “We have held workshops to try and increase awareness among some villagers.”
Manizha Mukhlas, who works for the Humanitarian Assistance for the Women and Children of Afghanistan (HAWCA) NGO, argued that the authorities needed to make an example of anyone involved in such cases.
“All the people involved in forced and underage marriages should be investigated by the government including the girl’s father, the religious scholar and the two witnesses.”
She continued, “Investigating those people who are involved in forced and underage marriages will frighten people and serve as a lesson for others, and that’s how to prevent such marriages.”
In a tiny minority of cases, women feel able to pay the penalty of ending their marriages in a country where it is seen as deeply shameful for a woman to apply for divorce.
Sharifa, 20, is a resident of Bazar Markaz in the Shor Tapa district of Balkh province. She was given as a third wife to carpet seller Tajuddin by her father, Tangi Berdi, who told IWPR, “I sold my daughter for 10,000 dollars because all fathers in Balkh take money from their son-in-laws in exchange for giving their daughters to them.”
“As soon I set foot in my husband’s house, he started torturing and harassing me,” Sharifa told IWPR, adding that the situation had been so unbearable that she was prepared to risk the social consequences of leaving her marriage.
“I went to the court and got divorced from my husband,” she said.
Asked why he had mistreated Sharifa, Tajuddin replied, “I have two more wives as well as Sharifa. Whenever I got angry with one of my wives, I beat all three, so as to treat all of them equally.”
This report was produced under IWPR’s Promoting Human Rights and Good Governance in Afghanistan initiative, funded by the European Union Delegation to Afghanistan.
Characters Count: 8629