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Women's rights have always been lacking among Pashtuns

AFGHANISTAN: Law on forced marriages still widely flouted

[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

According to the women’s ministry and NGOs, around 60 percent of Afghan girls get married before the age of 16

KABUL, 16 Mar 2005 (IRIN) - Standing out from the crowd in a queue of women waiting outside the Afghan Ministry of Women’s Affairs to submit their complaints, Turgul Khan looks a little confused.

The 22-year-old resident of Jilgah in the central province of Wardak is seeking help and advice from the ministry's legal department as his family is under pressure from relatives to marry off his 13-year-old sister and he's not happy about it.

Although the legal age for marriage in Afghanistan is 16 for females and 18 for males, many people, particularly in rural areas, either ignore the law or claim they are not aware of it.

Turgul said that when he was six he accidently shot and killed his uncle’s daughter while playing with a loaded rifle. His uncle forgave him. “But now, after 16 years, he wants my sister to marry his son, saying that in the past I killed his daughter,” Turgul told IRIN. “But my sister does not want that and neither do I.”

The practice of resolving conflicts between families by giving daughters or sisters to the agrieved party remains common in Afghanistan, local human rights groups have said.

“If the laws say that we should do that, than neither my sister nor I have a problem with that, but if the law does not approve it, we will not do that,” Turgul said. He maintained that his uncle, who was formerly a judge during the Taliban regime, was a powerful man in his community, while his family was poor.

Initially, the young man went to the district head asking him to resolve the issue, but he reportedly supported the claim of his relative.

The case of Turgul’s sister illustrates the continuing problem of forced marriages in the country. "Child marriage is a serious issue in Afghanistan because it has a very negative impact on society," Dr Suraya Subehrang, deputy minister of women's affairs, told IRIN earlier.

According to the women’s ministry and women’s NGOs, approximately 57 percent of Afghan girls get married before the age of 16.

The practice of forced marriages is carried out for many different reasons, including giving a female in marriage as repayment for a debt, or to resolve a feud. Many Afghan families determine whom a daughter should marry without her consent. The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) estimates that up to 80 percent of all marriages in Afghanistan are conducted without the consent of the parties involved.

Tradition and an improper interpretation of religious rules lie behind the many and varied abuses of women's rights in the country, including forced marriages, Baryalai Sabir Barya, a legal adviser with the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), told IRIN, adding that illiteracy and a lack of education were also contributing to the problem.


Forced Marriage Still Rife in Afghanistan

by Matthew Pennington

Mar 14, 2005

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) - Fourteen year-old Bibi has never seen the father who wants to sell her into marriage with a stranger. She hid when he sent police to her village home in northern Afghanistan a month ago. Her elder brother Kareem refused to hand her over and was dragged off to jail. But Bibi found sanctuary with a sympathetic relative in Kabul, where she now lives in fear her father will one day catch up with her.

The relative, Shahnoz, said the girl's father is not interested in finding a suitable mate for his daughter and only wants to get his hands on the dowry she could command.

"She's like a check," said Shahnoz, whose husband is a first cousin of Bibi's mother. "She's beautiful and he wants to sell the girl for marriage."

Bibi's story is far from unique. Despite the re-emergence of democracy and women's rights in Afghanistan, human rights officials say between 60 percent and 80 percent of marriages in the country are forced on women.

In rural areas, "tradition is so powerful women feel they really are the property of male relatives. Whatever they are told, they obey," said Sima Samar, chairwoman of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, the country's leading rights watchdog.

Girls and women are often wedded off for economic gain or to settle scores between feuding families, even though both practices run counter to civil and Islamic law. While marriages arranged by families are the norm in this conservative Muslim country, they are meant to have the consent of the bride and groom.

In Bibi's case the groom is a wealthy, older man looking for a second wife. Her relatives reckon he is willing to pay about $7,000 for her - a small fortune in one of the world's poorest countries.

"My father does not care about my life," Bibi said in an interview, mumbling into her white cotton head scarf. "He never brought clothes or food. My family is my mother and Kareem."

Bibi, Shahnoz and Kareem - who was recently released from jail - agreed to speak to The Associated Press in hope that publicizing the girl's plight might stop her estranged father from forcing her into marriage. The father, Rafur, could not be reached for comment.

Like many Afghans, they go by one name.

Shahnoz said she doesn't want Bibi to suffer the same fate as the girl's mother - forced by violence into a loveless union. After her first husband died, she was compelled to marry Rafur, his brother, who beat her when she resisted. The marriage - a customary matchup for an Afghan widow - broke down two years later.

Rafur only returned into their lives when Bibi was 14 and deemed by him ready for marriage - although still two years below the legal age for women.

The fall of the Taliban has heralded new opportunities for Afghan women. Millions of girls have returned to school three years after U.S.-led forces ousted the repressive Islamic regime. Many also have returned to work, especially in the cities.

A new constitution enshrines women's rights, and women have the vote in democratic elections. They have legal protection too - at least in theory.

Fawzia Amini, deputy director of the law and rights department at the Ministry of Women's Affairs, said the department investigates about 500 cases a year of abuse against women - usually of husbands beating their wives.

She said victims can seek legal support for getting a divorce, but such a step is so socially detrimental to the woman that it's usually better to try to force the husband to cooperate with authorities and rescue the marriage. She said there were only 10 to 15 divorces last year in the family court in Kabul, a city of around 4 million people.

"Our culture does not tolerate divorce. Divorced women will have a painful life. No one will care for them," Amini said. "There's no legal support for divorced women. Mostly they can't get a share of their dowry and they lose their children."

One 24-year-old woman decided to take that step this week. She hobbled into the Kabul office of the human rights commission on a bright spring morning, her face hidden by an all-covering blue burqa, seeking their help in securing a divorce.

Her husband, now in jail, had beaten her savagely with a stick after his mother accused her of stealing meat from the cooking pot. Photos supplied by the commission showed the woman's right foot and left arm in plaster. Welts from the beating scarred her back.

Shamsullah Ahmadzai at the commission's monitoring and investigation unit said that repressive traditions and the moral confusion of 25 years of war have left a violent social legacy in Afghanistan and such beatings are commonplace.

He said the enduring influence of warlords - some in positions of power within the government - undermine the reach of the law, making the situation worse.

Shahnoz said Bibi, who is illiterate, is not ready for marriage. Like many ethnic Pashtun girls and women, she rarely ventures outside her house and does not even know what her father looks like, although he lives in the same village in Afghanistan's northern Takhar province.

"If she went to school, maybe she'd learn about the world and have more confidence. As it is, if a man talks to her, her heart starts thumping. She can't even say hello," Shahnoz said.

Source: Associated Press