Born into the Wedding Gown

Artwork by Eli Canter: Childhood marriages cause many problems for the young brides.

A 17-year old girl named Sumbol was forced to choose between marrying her tormentor and becoming a suicide bomber. Another girl, Roshana, was forced into marriage when she was 14 and her husband beat her and tried to feed her rat poison. Sahar Gul, forced into marriage at age 12, was beaten and tortured after she refused to become a prostitute.

Child marriage is a major problem across the world, and is especially prevalent in Afghanistan. The legal age for marriage in Afghanistan is sixteen (fifteen with parental consent), but child marriage is one the rise.
Girls as young as eleven years old are bartered off to men that can be as old as sixty. Often, these girls are forced to marry against their will. According to a July 2016 UN report, over 50% of girls in Afghanistan get married before age 19, and 40% of these marriages involve girls who are from ages 10-13. The Afghan government has tried to get involved and investigate this human rights violation, but their efforts have not been effective. Many local families condone child marriage and the government has difficulty passing reform laws. But, child marriage physicaly and psychologically harms the young girls involved, and it must be eradicated.

Afghanistan is a patriarchal society where life is structured in a way that gives men complete power. Parents and elders select spouses for their daughters, and girls are treated as objects. In society, there is also an emphasis placed on being “conservative.” Girls are married off at a young age to prevent them from losing their virginity or having children out of wedlock. Conservative Muslims argue that Islam allows child marriage because the Quran says that girls can be married when they reach maturity. While most Muslims would say that girls reach maturity at age 18, some believe that they mature at puberty.

Poverty is one of the largest forces causing child marriage. Child brides are typically impoverished and less educated. In addition, girls that are from rural areas are twice as likely to marry as children as those from urban areas. In Afghan society, women are not considered to be viable wage earners. Their place is in the “kitchen” or “at home.” As a result, they are often considered to be an “economic burden.” Families might marry off their daughter to avoid paying for education, reduce family expenses, gain a higher status in society, rid of debts or settle feuds. Younger brides are considered more valuable, and bride prices (money given to the bride’s parents) rise if the bride marries younger. Conversely, dowries owed to the groom’s family will be less if the bride is younger. So, the parents of girls are financially incentivized to marry their daughters off at a younger age.

According to Human Rights Watch, more than 85% of Afghan women said that they had experienced physical, sexual or psychological abuse or were forced into marriage. Statistics show that those who are in forced marriages are almost twice as likely to experience abuse as those who are in consensual marriages. Their spouses tend to be older, more aggressive, and put pressure on girls to perform sexual acts. In some cases, when a girl is “misbehaving” or not being “appropriate,” rape, adultery, and abuse are considered “moral crimes.” Men who commit these acts don’t believe that what they are doing is wrong and they often get away with abuse. As a result of domestic violence and forced marriages, hundreds of women and girls in Afghanistan attempt suicide by setting themselves on fire. Other times, girls try to escape abusive relationships and forced marriages. However, they are frequently accused of “zina” (running away) and can be arrested by authorities without question. The authorities fail to do anything to protect these young girls, and most just return them to their abusive spouses. Two girls, ages 13 and 14, had disguised themselves as boys and fled to escape their illegal, forced marriages. They were spotted by a police officer, and he sent them back their village despite their pleas and protests. As a punishment for running away, they were flogged (beaten with a whip or stick) publicly. In terms of punishment, these girls were considered lucky. Two other girls escaped their forced marriages after being abused and were captured and forced to return. Their fathers took them up to the mountain and killed them. According to the World Health Organization, pregnancy complications are the “leading cause of death among girls aged fifteen to nineteen in low and middle income countries.” 32% of all deaths of girls between 15 and 19 were pregnancy-related. Girls that become pregnant at young ages don’t have mature enough bodies to support their child. They are at a greater risk for developing fistula (because their pelvises are not fully developed), and they may have obstructed labor due to their smaller size.

A UNICEF study found that across forty-seven countries, girls that received a primary school education were less likely to be married at a young age than girls who had not received an education. Lack of education is associated with child marriage. Child marriage doesn’t allow girls to take advantage of educational opportunities as they are busy with household chores and caring for their children. Girls are left without the skills and knowledge to support themselves. This maintains their “low societal status” and contributes to the cycle of poverty.

While there are reform laws, they are not particularly effective. Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women deemed forced marriages, domestic violence, and other abuses against women to be illegal. However, the Afghan government has difficulty enforcing these laws, and there is lack of cooperation among local families. In addition, a new Afghan criminal procedure code bans all relatives from testifying against a criminal defendant. Wives cannot testify against abusive husbands and daughters cannot testify against child marriage. Because of this arcane law, women have no way to obtain freedom or justice. There has not been a breakthrough law or organization that has completely stopped child marriage. The people in Afghanistan are incredibly impoverished, and child marriage seems like a viable option for the people who don’t have enough money to support their families. It is necessary to acknowledge the economic issues that exist in Afghanistan if we want to put an end to child marriage.

By Sophia Glinski

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