BAMYAN, Afghanistan -- Hamida, a young Afghan girl from the Yakawlang district of the central Afghan province of Bamyan, had pictured a bright future for herself. But at age 14, her dreams of finishing school and attending university met with the harsh reality facing so many girls in Afghanistan when her father married her off to an older cousin.
Hamida’s childhood was taken away from her in the name of exploitative customs that are widespread in rural and remote areas of the country. Once she was married, she was expected to cook, clean, and look after her husband and in-laws, but after six years, she has had enough.
“When I was in seventh grade, my father forced me to marry a man I did not love. My husband's family did not let me continue my education,” said Hamida, now age 20. “I finally divorced my husband, but my life is now a cycle of never-ending problems.”
“I have returned to my father's house, but my ex-husband has taken my [2-year-old] daughter away from me,” she said. “I am worried for my daughter's future. I don't want her to face a destiny similar to mine.”
In a show of unity against the practice and in a pioneering move the first of its kind in Afghanistan, civil rights activists, religious clerics, and women in Bamyan’s Yakawlang district agreed to ban forced marriages. A number of the clerics suggested this type of union is unacceptable and actually forbidden in Islam.
Rauf Salehi, a leader of Yakawlang’s clerics, tells Radio Free Afghanistan that after the decision to prohibit forced marriages was made a few months ago, the number of forced marriages in the district dropped by 50 percent.
“When people come to religious imams or clerics, it is necessary for them to investigate the situation and ensure it is not a forced or underage marriage,” Salehi says.
“Either way, forced and underage marriages go against Islamic law, and girls who are in this type of situation cannot participate in decision-making for themselves. Therefore, a marriage of this fashion is invalid through the lens of Islam,” he added.
The official legal marriage age in Afghanistan is 16 for girls and 18 for boys. Most marriages in Afghanistan’s segregated society are arranged by parents and family elders between consenting adults. But traditions involving bride price, dowries, and using marriages to settle disputes results have turned many arranged marriages into forced unions. Every year thousands of young girls like Hamida have their fate signed away by others, giving them little to no opportunity to have a say for themselves.
Some Afghans, mostly those who are poverty-stricken or uneducated, view marriage as transactional and therefore decide to wed their children for economic reasons, according to a UNICEF study, leaving them vulnerable to health risks and potential abuse.
Salehi says it is necessary to end the exploitative social customs that permit these types of marriages to take place in the first place. He has asked the government to take a strong stand on this issue.
Zakia Razia, head of Bamyan’s women’s rights commission, commends the decision made by the religious leaders. She says she will continue to work with elders and religious figures in order to forbid forced child marriages throughout all districts of Bamyan.
“Forced and underage marriages are a crime against women; therefore, we will make sure to get all of the religious leaders on our side, to rid the province of this undesirable practice,” Razia said.
In many cases, women who marry under the legal age or against their will experience psychological traumas that can negatively impact their mental health in the long run, even if they are able to secure a divorce.
Nilly Kohzad wrote this story based on reporting by Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Gulamaiz Sharifi from Bamyan, Afghanistan.