Child marriage still widespread

The United Nations, government officials and rights bodies in the Afghan capital, Kabul, have expressed grave concern about the widespread practice of girls marrying early, as the country marked World Population Day on Tuesday.

Nearly 60 percent of marriages in Afghanistan involve girls below the legal age of 16, according to reports from the Ministry of Women's Affairs and NGOs. Some girls are married as young as nine.

Rights and health activists say that such marriages increase the maternal mortality rate and deny young women an education or any kind of independent life. Often, after a child marriage, husbands and/or parents-in-law refuse to allow the child-wife to go to school under threat of violence.

“Badakhshan [northeastern province] has the highest maternal mortality rate in the country and one of the main reason is under-age marriages - even as young as seven in some cases. This needs to be addressed,” Paul Greening a project officer of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) said on Wednesday in Kabul.

Afghan minister of women’s affairs Masouda Jalal, called early marriage “a violation of equality” and condemned the traditional practice as harmful to girl’s health, their education, political participation and economic opportunities.

“Child marriage and early childbearing mean an incomplete education, limited opportunities and serious health risks,” Jalal said.

Child brides are not physically mature and can sustain injury during sexual intercourse.

“It is a shame to say that even in the capital Kabul we treat pregnant mothers as young as 12 years of age,” said a midwife at Malalai hospital, the leading maternity and gynaecology unit in the capital.

Afghanistan's civil code sets the minimum age of marriage for females at 16 and for males 18 but in rural and even some urban areas, the tradition of marrying off daughters while even younger in order to receive money remains common among the poor.

A recent study by Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) has found 500 girls who had been given away or traded as part of local conflict resolution practices. Of these, 90 percent were under 14 years old. Most become the 'property' of the family or individual who receives them.