Saving the Child Brides of Afghanistan

On July 18, 2916, Zahra, a fourteen-year-old girl was burned to death by her husband's family.   According to her father, her in-laws had stabbed and beaten her over her refusal to work in the family opium fields due to being four-months pregnant.   Her father claimed that she had been burned to hide the signs of her beating.    She had been given to the husband's family as part of a traditional practice known as "baad" to settle a dispute as Zahra's father had eloped with a woman from the other family.   

While practices such as baad and other traditions involving female children being given in marriage are illegal under Afghan law, cases such as Zahra's remain all too common, especially in Afghanistan's rural districts.  Girls are usually sold following an exchange of money or goods or else to settle a dispute.  In all cases, it is the men of the family who make the decision to sell off the daughter with women, including the mothers, having no real say.  For many families, selling off daughters remains the only real way to escape the terrible poverty many families endure.   When families are unable to feed their children, selling some for sheep, cows, or money makes good economic sense.  Especially since daughters are seen as being less valuable than sons.    In other cases, girls and women are exchanged between families, often as a way of avoiding expensive dowries.   This practice, known as badal, has been linked to frequent domestic violence and family feuds.   Both baad and badal have been banned by the 2009  Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women with little real impact in rural areas.

While eliminating child marriage and promoting education is one of the 17 Sustainable goals that are part of the United Nations Action Plans for Afghanistan, such plans have had only limited success in the past.   Though the plan opposes groups opposing marriage for any girl before the age of 18, the legal age of marriage is set at 16 by the Afghan Civil Code and an estimated one out of every three girls are married off despite efforts to curb the practice.     Given the medical consequences of child marriage, including deaths due to pregnancy before girls are mature enough to endure pregnancy or deliver a child safely.   Also, many families forbid the new bride, who is often seen as property, to attend school or learn a trade.    For many girls, suicide is often the only way out.

Though prominent Afghans have gone on record in opposing child marriage, including First Lady Rula Ghani, the National Action Plan  to Eliminate Early and Child Marriage is off to a rocky start.    Whether it will gain the traction needed to provide Afghan girls with a real alternative to early marriage and abuse remains to be seen.

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