Girls’ Underage Marriage: An Age-Old Phenomenon with New Dimensions in Afghanistan

Hasht-E Subh The marriage of young girls remains a significant challenge in numerous countries, profoundly impacting the lives of women and yielding various consequences within society. Child marriage is a phenomenon deeply rooted in the history of Afghanistan.

Upon reflection, we find that this issue has experienced fluctuations over time. Although efforts were made in the past two decades to reduce this practice through legislation determining the minimum marriage age for both girls and boys, it is evident that the implementation of such laws has failed to bring about tangible changes in society. Despite the existence of laws within Afghanistan’s civil code that prohibit child marriage, the judicial system has exhibited a reluctance to enforce these laws, largely due to inherent gender biases.

The two-year reign of the Taliban following the collapse of the republic system reveals that Afghanistan not only perpetuated this cultural practice but also intensified it within the various layers of its society. The events that transpired during this period served as a stark manifestation of the suffering endured by young girls within a deeply patriarchal society spanning centuries and millennia. The veil that concealed the extreme misogyny prevailing in Afghan society for two decades was lifted with the Taliban’s resurgence. The current plight of women and the society’s response to their struggles elucidate the deep-rooted nature of male dominance, misogyny, and disregard for women’s lives within the societal structure, institutions, and familial networks of Afghanistan—elements the Taliban have endorsed and exacerbated through their actions.

The alarming rise in the prevalence of child marriage, particularly girls’ underage marriage, signifies the presence of distinct cultural and social contexts, each warranting thorough analysis. Contrary to common assumptions, this phenomenon is not limited to any specific area. While a patriarchal society and a culture of male servitude contribute to its existence, child marriage can also be attributed to political power dynamics, economic conditions, and cultural norms. In general, the underlying causes of child marriage encompass economic poverty, educational and cultural deprivation, unstable family environments, gender discrimination, and the perception of women as inferior, with additional factors such as female poverty further exacerbating the issue.

This article aims to delve into the reasons and circumstances that lead to child marriage, examine the prevailing attitudes towards this phenomenon, explore its detrimental consequences, and analyze how the resumption of Taliban rule has facilitated the conditions conducive to child marriage.

A) Cultural Factors

Culture serves as the foundation for people’s values, beliefs, and the justification of various matters. However, in Afghanistan, the deeply entrenched male-chauvinistic nature of the culture itself has resulted in suffering and violence against women.

While incorrect norms like child marriage can exist in any culture and have been prevalent in many societies in the past, in Afghanistan, due to widespread illiteracy and ignorance, these issues persist with alarming intensity.

One of the primary causes of this deeply rooted phenomenon in our culture lies in the prevailing customs, habits, and traditions among the populace. From early childhood, girls are viewed as individuals who “belong to others.” Without any understanding of life, they are thrust into roles as wives and mothers through children’s games or even in the lessons they undertake. Furthermore, the perception of women as the honor of families drives parents to marry off their daughters to uphold their dignity.

Another issue stems from the existence of stereotypes and cultural beliefs surrounding women. Objectifying women within society has resulted in the perception of them as morally corrupt and susceptible to corruption, thereby necessitating their protection. Additionally, the idealization of virginity as a sacred and esteemed value during marriage leads to the control of girls’ sexual behavior and prompts families to marry off their daughters at an early age. The primary concern of many families revolves around safeguarding their daughters until marriage and fulfilling their responsibility, thus finding solace.

The desire to control girls’ sexual behavior, coupled with the notion of them being the family’s honor, creates an environment where families hastily arrange marriages for their daughters, making the girls victims of forced marriages orchestrated by the male figurehead of the household. Forced marriage entails a union where the girl and/or the boy do not provide consent and reluctantly comply with the marriage. This erroneous tradition is prevalent in our society and enjoys popularity among the people. Repugnant customs and norms, the objectification of women, an insecure environment exacerbated by war, poverty, arranged marriages, the abuse of girls, ignorance, and illiteracy all contribute to the perpetuation of forced marriages within society, encouraging such practices.

Child marriage can be considered a form of forced marriage. Every child forced into marriage becomes a victim of this coercive practice. In child marriage, the child is not consulted for their consent, which is fundamentally incorrect since the child has not yet attained the maturity to make decisions about marriage, lacking both emotional and relational comprehension of such unions. Even if someone claims that the child entered into the marriage willingly, such assertions remain unacceptable. Various types of forced marriages prevail within society, including “unfortunate” marriages, marriages conducted solely in name, and exchange marriages. Apart from the inherent repulsiveness and incorrectness of these customs, in most cases, the girls being married off are nothing more than mere children.

Marriage by “Name” is a clear manifestation of child marriage prevalent in our country. This type of marriage occurs during a girl’s childhood, where the father designates a specific man for her to marry, either before or after her birth. The girl has no right to voice her objections and is obligated to comply with the decision made by her parents. As she grows older, she is officially wedded to the same man who was chosen for her during her childhood.

Regarding the practice of marrying off a girl as a “blood price,” it involves holding the girl responsible for a crime committed by a male member of her family. This marriage takes place without the girl’s consent and despite her opposition. Forcing girls into marriages as a form of blood price is such a definitive action that if a family does not have a young daughter, they are compelled to offer a child girl or even a newborn baby girl. In exchange marriages, which are akin to deals between two families, the families arrange for their daughters to marry men from their sons’ in-laws’ family. This is done to reduce wedding expenses and fulfill the requirements of dowry and bride price for their sons’ marriages. Such marriages occur during times of extreme poverty (as witnessed today). It is also observed in cases where the male head of the family loses a gambling bet and is obligated to offer his sister or daughter to the man who bested him, regardless of her age.

B) The Role of Economic Factors in Child Marriage

For a portion of society, girls are considered an easy means to escape poverty. There are economic motivations behind marrying off and selling girls, either at birth or a young age. In many regions, child marriage becomes an economic transaction through which families sustain themselves. In their quest to overcome poverty, families arrange for their daughters to marry in exchange for monetary compensation. This practice is pervasive across all regions of Afghanistan to varying degrees, deeply ingrained within the fabric of society. Over the past two years, the deprivation of women’s rights and widespread unemployment among the populace has resulted in the victimization of young girls. Beheshta from Faryab Province serves as a stark example of selling girls after the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. Numerous reports have surfaced highlighting child marriages driven primarily by economic poverty.

Furthermore, another reason for the institutionalization of child marriage in society is the absence of women in positions of power and their perception of being subservient to men. Throughout history, families have viewed girls as “treasure jars,” often coupled with disappointment and unhappiness stemming from having multiple daughters. Fathers or male heads of households view the act of marrying off a daughter as a means to acquire wealth and status. A closer examination of everyday conversations reveals how people perceive female children, whether their own or others’, as mere vessels of wealth.

Looking back at historical rulers, from the past to the present, we can observe how girls have become pawns in political affairs and tools in the manipulation of power by men within the family. Girls were used to maintain or increase wealth and consolidate power. Even today, marrying off girls serves as a foundation for the emergence of power and wealth. Families, enticed by the allure of prosperity and influence, hasten to arrange marriages for their young daughters.

C) Jihad-ul-Nikah of the Taliban and the Proliferation of Underage Girls’ Marriages

The Taliban, being a terrorist group that disregards human rights standards, align their policies with child marriage. They openly advocate and promote the marriage of young girls, disregarding the concept of “adult marriage.” Due to their misogynistic beliefs, the Taliban view women as corrupting influences, lacking intellect, and sources of lust and corruption. Their objective is to control and marginalize women, excluding them from society. They perceive themselves as devout soldiers of God, aiming to establish an all-Islamic emirate. In order to create a so-called Islamic society, they employ various methods to ensure that their system remains unblemished by the presence of women. These methods include banning women’s education, emphasizing the sanctity of motherhood, pressuring girls into marriage, and exerting control over the sexuality of teenage girls. The Taliban regard women as mere reproductive machines and means to satisfy men’s desires, limiting them to the roles of wives and mothers.

With the collapse of the republican government in Afghanistan, the Taliban have once again revived the concept of sexual jihad, known as Jihad-ul-Nikah. Over the past two decades, in areas under Taliban control, this group engaged in Jihad al-Nikah, although it was less prevalent and confined to specific regions. However, with their return to power, this practice has spread throughout the entire country. Consequently, most families have married off their daughters, fearing that they may fall into the clutches of the Taliban.

Due to their inferior social status within Afghanistan’s patriarchal and misogynistic society, women are more vulnerable. In critical situations, families resort to marrying off their daughters as a means of protection, driven by the belief that women are the honor of the family and to shield them from the impure and hostile fighters of the Taliban. Early marriage during this time is also seen as a way to safeguard girls from sexual violence or from marrying men who are not approved by their families.

The Taliban’s misogynistic policies have directly or indirectly contributed to the widespread occurrence of child marriage in society. Recently, the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) highlighted the closure of schools to girls as one of the factors exacerbating child marriage in Afghanistan. The Taliban openly view women as the source and instigators of evil and lust, perceiving the sound of girls’ footsteps as igniting corruption within society. To control girls’ sexuality, they enforce strict hijab rules, shut down girls’ schools, and confine them to private spaces. Undoubtedly, confining girls within the confines of their homes and depriving them of education has compelled families to marry off their daughters, regardless of their age and desires.

As previously discussed, economic poverty plays a significant role in the rise of child marriage. With the Taliban’s dominance, poverty has become an epidemic, motivating the increased occurrence of underage girls’ marriages. The Taliban have not only failed to address the economic conditions of the people but have further exacerbated poverty within society. The consequences of unemployment and widespread poverty have resulted in various societal challenges, including the surge in underage marriages.

Furthermore, through their acquisition of political power, the Taliban have nullified the constitution of the republic government, plunging society into a state of lawlessness over the past two years. Every order, whether issued verbally or in writing by Taliban Supreme Leader Mulla Hibatullah Akhundzada or Taliban officials, is enforced upon the people. When it comes to women, not only have there been no orders to support and protect them, but the Taliban have imposed a ban on women themselves. The Taliban’s actions against women have institutionalized discrimination, normalizing misogyny as a daily routine in society.

The absence of a legal system to support women has left them suffocating within a cycle of violence. Consequently, men feel emboldened to commit acts of violence against women and oppress them even further. Given that Afghan society is a breeding ground for violence, and the ruling regime actively promotes violence, women who experience domestic violence and require support from organizations find themselves trapped and stranded between these two realms.

During the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, there were institutions and laws in place to prevent violence against women, as well as safe houses to provide shelter for women who had experienced violence or were at risk. However, the Taliban have destroyed these safe houses. Today, if a girl wishes to resist a forced and underage marriage and oppose her family’s wishes, she has no protector or shelter to turn to. If a girl attempts to escape her home, she is highly likely to fall into the clutches of the Taliban and face sentencing, such as stoning or beatings.

In short, it is evident that the Taliban have regressed society through their oppressive actions, inflicting harm and even destruction upon women and children. In addition to the Taliban fighters actively engaging in Jihad al-Nikah and marrying underage girls, the absence of law, the lack of a legal system to safeguard women, the prohibition on women’s education and employment, the deprivation of women’s freedoms, and the pervasive poverty and unemployment all contribute to facilitating the victimization of underage girls.

D) The Implications of Underage Marriage

The practice of marrying underage girls exposes them to both obvious and hidden harm, perpetuating a destructive cycle that impacts not only the lives of women but also the entire society. As this ominous phenomenon becomes more prevalent, various forms of violence begin to permeate family life and kinship relationships. To be more explicit, marrying girls at a young age deprives them of a fulfilling life and essentially confines them to a compulsory grave. The consequences of child marriage are numerous, including missed educational opportunities, girls fleeing their homes, the feminization of poverty, early motherhood, premature widowhood, mental and physical violence, severe depression, and social isolation.

In most Afghan families, girls are not granted the right to choose their own husbands. The satisfaction of the men in the family takes precedence, with the mothers often playing a role in consenting to this process. While resistance to marriage may have a chance of success without the insistence and complicity of the mothers, the reality is that these mothers have spent their entire lives within the framework of a patriarchal society, where customs and traditions have become deeply ingrained. They teach their daughters to obey men’s decisions and uphold these values.

When a girl perceives her mother as an obstacle to her progress and lacks any form of support, she may attempt to resist the demands of the men in the household by running away from home, if she possesses the courage and means to do so. However, in a society like Afghanistan, running away from home does not typically yield positive outcomes. When a girl is caught and brought back home, due to the notion of “disgrace and violation of honor,” she may either be silently killed or, in the most optimistic scenario, forced to marry another man against her will. Furthermore, not only does society fail to support a girl who has run away, but under the Taliban’s rule, the legal system also does not offer her any protection, leaving her homeless and vulnerable.

Childhood is a crucial period for individuals to acquire life skills. It is a time of self-discovery, capacity-building, and experiential learning. However, marrying children during this phase hinders their personal growth and robs them of the opportunity for self-improvement and self-fulfillment, mainly due to the husband’s opposition to his wife pursuing education. Additionally, the burdens of married life and the responsibilities imposed on young girls within large families contribute to their inability to pursue education.

A girl who is married off as a child lacks the necessary understanding of life and interpersonal dynamics. Marital life demands awareness and the ability to navigate shared existence, which are absent in child marriages. This form of marriage, inherently violent in itself, further sharpens the blade of violence in the lives of these girls. Forced marriage coupled with the girl’s ignorance about potential oppression from her husband’s family exerts immense mental and emotional pressure, leading to anger, depression, stress, and other mental illnesses. Consequently, the girl becomes isolated from social life and develops feelings of hatred and disgust towards her husband. In the future, this marriage may either persist in its cycle of violence or culminate in divorce.

In addition to the adverse consequences of abandoning education and personal development, such as the separation from peers, the loss of adolescence and youth, increased household responsibilities, and early sexual activity, child marriage also leads to the irreparable consequence of compulsory pregnancies, resulting in premature births. Consequently, child marriage becomes a crisis of child motherhood. Therefore, it can be inferred that as the prevalence of child marriage increases in our country, so too will the number of child mothers or mothers who were forced into motherhood.

Furthermore, if the girl’s husband dies due to any reason, including war or old age (as many child girls are victims of marrying much older men), the girl is left alone to face numerous challenges, including the responsibility of caring for her children. Having married as a child, the girl lacks awareness of essential life skills and struggles to overcome her problems. This situation often leads to women living in poverty or even remarrying their deceased husband’s relatives, thereby compounding their misfortunes.

The feminization of poverty, or the prevalence of poverty among women, is a complex issue. Child marriage is one of the direct factors contributing to the impoverishment of women. Child marriage results in child motherhood, and in cases of divorce, death, or addiction of the spouse, women are forced to shoulder the burden of supporting the family alone. Limited employment opportunities, lack of social support, legal restrictions, absence of civil liberties, and inadequate skills further entrap women in the cycle of poverty. While poverty has negative consequences for society as a whole, female poverty carries additional and unremitting repercussions, including increased rates of begging and prostitution.

Currently, under the Taliban’s rule, the phenomenon of child marriage has intensified, exacerbated by the absence of laws and legal protections for women, societal impoverishment, restricted access to education and employment for women, and the lack of safe shelters for those facing violence. In such a dire situation where women are deprived of even their most basic rights, discussing solutions to improve the status of women may not be widely popular or may even seem impossible. Nevertheless, it is possible to initiate change at a grassroots level and within the fabric of society to improve the living conditions of women. Free media can play a vital role in disseminating information to mitigate this phenomenon, while private organizations and non-governmental organizations can be instrumental in raising awareness and educating the public on this issue.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.