FIROZ KOH, Afghanistan -- Bibi Asma’s fate was sealed before she could understand what the word meant.
As an infant, she was engaged to a distant male relative who was several years older.
Their engagement, in a ramshackle house in Firoz Koh, the capital of Afghanistan’s western Ghor Province, has shaped most of the now 18-year-old Asma’s agonizing experiences.
Most decisions about her life, she says, were made without her consent when she was just a child.
Asma met her fiancé for the first time when she was 15. But the meeting turned into a nightmare.
“One day, I went to the well, and he came and grabbed me,” she recalled. “Then he took me into a room. Then that happened there.”
Asma says she didn’t complain about the incident, but more devastation followed.
Bibi Asma’s fate was sealed before she could understand what the word meant.
“[A few days later] he returned to [neighboring] Iran,” she said. “There he asked his family to get another wife for him, and they did so."
Her mother, broken by the news, died. The family continued to face more misfortune.
After ending their engagement, her fiancé’s family asked for some $1,000 as part of the nearly $3,000 bride wealth they had paid Asma’s parents at the time of her engagement.
To escape reprisals from her former in-laws, Asma and her father moved to a new house in Firoz Koh. But even in the new house, she cannot find relief from her constant anxiety.
“I am afraid. Misfortune cannot be greater than this,” she said.
Radio Free Afghanistan was unable to independently verify her account or to reach her former in-laws, who are presumed to be living in exile in Iran.
Women’s rights campaigners in Ghor, however, say Asma’s story is typical of dozens of forced and child marriages that take place every year.
Nooria Navid says most perpetrators of underage and forced marriages in Ghor go unpunished.
In July, police arrested Sayed Mohammad Karim, a 50-something cleric, who claimed to have “married” a 6-year-old girl.
Karim claimed he had received the girl as a “gift” from her parents, who were his disciples.
However, Nooria Navid, a women’s rights campaigner, says most perpetrators of underage and forced marriages in Ghor go unpunished.
She says that during the past three years their 25-member group has registered more than 100 cases of forced or child marriages.
“Almost every girl in Ghor is forced to get married before the age of 18,” she told Radio Free Afghanistan. “There is no fixed age for girls' marriage. Sometime girls are engaged three days after their birth.”
Navid says she has witnessed marriages between a 20-year-old man and a 3-year-old girl. “[There was once case in which] a 65-year-old man married a 6-year-old,” she noted.
She says her group registered 11 such cases in August alone. Despite the tragedy of nearly every case, one of these even managed to shock them.
“One strongman gave his henchman’s horse to another person for a Buzkashi match in a remote part of Ghor. During the match, the horse broke its leg and died,” she said. “The strongman then accused the other of not taking good enough care of the horse and forced him to give his 1-year-old daughter to the horse’s owner.”
Masooma Anwari, the head of the provincial women’s directorate in Ghor.
Masooma Anwari, the head of the provincial women’s directorate, says abusive cultural practices, a weak economic situation, and low levels of public awareness about women’s rights have contributed to violence against women and their exploitation.
She says her group’s research has revealed that incidents of suicide, mostly through self-immolation or hangings, were linked to underage and forced marriages in Ghor.
“[Many women] do not know about their rights and still think they are under the command of men,” she said. “Men think they own women and that they can decide whatever they want [for them].”
Anwari said her organization has sought to raise public awareness about underage marriages in Ghor. But inadequate funds and insecurity in the region prevent them from making an impact in the vast rural region with an estimated population of 1 million.
This year, Ghor’s Pasaband and Dolaina districts have witnessed fierce fighting between Afghan security forces and Taliban insurgents.
The presence of thousands of armed men often dubbed as “irresponsible armed groups” by Afghan authorities contributes to violence in the province. They also create hurdles for women’s rights groups and prevent them from addressing or documenting incidents of violence against women.
Last year, Ghor made international headlines after a video of a young woman being stoned to death emerged. Authorities said 19-year-old Rokhshana was killed in the village of Ghalmin in October 2015.
Afghan officials said the region, close to Firoz Koh, was controlled by the Taliban.
Rokhshana was accused of attempting to elope with a 23-year-old man named Mohammad Gul after her family had married her off against her will.
Gul was let off after a lashing.
“He [Mohammad] was released because he had relatives and supporters,” Navid said. “But the girl, who had only her poor father backing her, was brutally stoned to death.”
She said that 15 years after the fall of the hard-line Taliban regime, the lot of women in rural Afghanistan has not improved.
Navid says her advocacy for women’s rights is often met with threats and harassment by local strongmen.
“I will sacrifice myself so that other women and the generations to come will not become victims," she said.