The ancient practice of baad, the forced marriage of a girl to an antagonized family to settle a feud, is still prevalent in rural Afghanistan.
When a villager kills a member of a rival clan in a fight, the elders of the community forms a jirga, or council, to mediate the conflict and prevent further bloodshed. The jirga typically chooses a young woman from the perpetrator's family and orders her to marry a man from the victim's clan. In theory, the resulting bond between the two families is meant to stop further turmoil. But in practice, it is the young woman who pays a heavy price.
Bloody skirmishes remain alarmingly common in rural Afghan communities, where issues like the sharing of irrigation water -- a scarce resource -- cause conflicts among poor subsistence farmers. A verbal spat escalates into a fistfight, and soon enough the farmers are bludgeoning each other with shovels, with fatal consequences. The male members of both farmers' families are then dragged into the fight. By the time the elders and the village council step in, the warring parties have already caused irreparable damage.
To placate the victim family's thirst for revenge, the village elders usually resort to baad. But the presiding mullah and village chief have little regard for the bride's fate: Their objective is simply to prevent further bloodshed. The bride is often in her early teens or even younger, wedded to a 50- or 60-year-old man from the victim's family. The community forgoes typical wedding ceremonies in baad marriages. The bride is quietly escorted to her new home, where she is often abused by her vengeance-seeking in-laws.
Earlier this year, the nongovernmental organization Civil and Liberal Initiative for Peace (CLIP) sought to map the practice of baad and its social impact in Afghanistan. Focusing on nine districts in Kabul, Parwan, and Panjshir provinces, the survey showed a significant decline in baad cases.
"The Baad tradition is still practiced in some of the areas where literacy rates are low," said CLIP member Khadija Amiri. She attributed the decrease of baad practice to improved education and literacy programs and an increase in public awareness.
Amiri confirmed that the victims of baad are mostly under-aged girls who are sacrificed to settle an inter-family dispute. Girls who run away from home with a boy or are accused of having premarital sex are also targeted, according to CLIP's findings.
Khatira Asadi, another CLIP member, highlighted a baad case in which the murderer's family married their daughter to a man who already has a wife and children, works abroad, and was not even present at the wedding.
"He is in Iran, but the girl has to serve the family of her new husband like a servant," Asadi said.
Human rights activists say religious leaders can play a vital role in rooting out the practice, since it is they who handle baad cases outside of the official justice system. Asadi said her organization has launched a campaign to educate and create awareness in rural villages about this issue.
"We tell them that based on the religious teachings and the laws of Afghanistan, they are free not to practice this tradition," she added.