In-depth: Youth in crisis: Coming of age in the 21st century

AFGHANISTAN: Child forced marriages still a common tradition

Afghan girls are sometimes married off to honour promises made by their fathers or grandfathers
KABUL, 23 February 2007 (IRIN) - In Mazar-i-Sharif, the provincial capital of Afghanistan's northern Balkh province, 17-year-old Humaira Taiba is considering committing suicide.

“I don’t want to marry the man who is 45 years old, the same age as my father,” said Humaira while sitting beside a window in her house and crying.

She is trying to terminate the engagement arranged by her grandfather when she was just 1 month old.

“I have been roaming for one and half years with a petition in my hand to find a solution for my destiny. Though suicide is illegal, but if I don’t get my right, I have to commit suicide,” she stressed.

Despite some progress in women’s rights such as guaranteeing equal rights for both men and women in the new constitution, the day-to-day life of women has changed little. Forced marriages and child marriages still continue and lead some women to escape their fate by choosing self-immolation.

Many girls are married off before the legal age for different reasons; sometimes to end a dispute or to earn money. According to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), 57 percent of marriages in Afghanistan involve girls below the legal age of 16.

Often, after marriage, husbands or parents-in-law do not allow the girl to go to school under threat of violence. Women’s rights and health activists say that forced and child marriages increase the maternal mortality rate and deny young women an education or any kind of independent life.

According to the Afghan Civil Law, young girls should not be engaged or married before the age of 16 and for boys, 18. The law also says those who are engaged as children do not have to accept the engagement when they become adults. All, especially the girls, have the right to terminate the engagement.

The legal protection department of the Afghan Ministry of Women’s Affairs (MoWA) says that they have received around 30 cases regarding forced young marriages during 2006. “The figure of forced young marriage is much higher than the number of cases we have got,” Shakila Afzalyar, deputy director of the department, told IRIN.

She believes that most of these young women either didn’t know about their rights or because of their conservative families do not dare to come to legal departments and their cases go unreported.

17 years ago Mullah Hafiz [Humaira’s grandfather] engaged Humaira’s aunt to Haji Qurban. But another member of Mullah Hafiz’s family insisted his son should marry Humaira’s aunt instead. So Mullah Hafiz went back to Haji Qurban and as compensation Humaira was promised to him.

Three years ago Haji Qurban returned to claim Humaira. “During the Taliban regime and Mujahidin government I was not able to come to Balkh province, but after the fall of the Taliban regime I came to marry her as she was young enough for marriage,” Haji Qurban explained.

Since then Humaira has struggled against marrying him. She says that Haji Qurban threatened he would kidnap her, so she sent a letter to the women’s council in the provincial capital Mazar-i-Sharif, and the women’s council sent her letter to the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC).

“We got Humaira’s letter, but we sent her to the court as we are not authorized to take decisions.” Fawzia Nawabi, deputy of advocacy and development of women’s rights at the AIHRC in Balkh province, told IRIN.

The court in Balkh province referred the cases of Humaira and Haji Qurban to the court of neighbouring Samangan province because they both were originally from there.

But Humaira hasn’t gone to Samangan court because she believes Haji Qurban has connections to the authorities there and thinks there is little chance she will get a fair hearing.

Organisations like the AIHRC offer public awareness programmes against young marriage and assist women already in forced marriages. But despite these efforts, the problem continues and Humaira says she is willing to take drastic measures if she is not successful.

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[This article is part of a special IRIN series that looks at how conflict, poverty and social alienation are affecting the lives of children and teenagers. Read more: Youth in crisis: coming of age in the 21st century]
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