HERAT, Afghanistan, 30 July 2013 – When Farzana* was 10 years old, her father, a farmer and laborer in a small village in western Afghanistan, arranged for her to marry a man 40 years her senior. The groom, already married and the father of six children – most of them older than Farzana – paid $9,000 to Farzana’s father in return for his daughter’s hand in marriage.
The 10-year-old begged her father to call off the marriage, even promising to eat less so that she would not be a burden on her family. Her father remained unmoved, despite her protestations.
“I was crying very hard and telling my parents that I don’t want to go through with this,” recalls Farzana, now age 12.
Her only support was her mother, Habiba, who herself was married at a very early age and knew the complications and difficulties of early marriage. Farzana’s little brothers rallied around her as well, but to no avail. The marriage was fixed and the dates set.
“I would have missed my sister a lot – she provides a lot of support for my family, and the groom was too old,” says Yahya, Farzana’s little brother
Difficult to refuse
Farzana belongs to a poor family in a village in western Afghanistan. With three other children and an income of less than $30 a month, Farzana’s father, Ghulam, could barely make ends meet. An offer to marry off his daughter for the princely amount of $9,000 was too difficult to refuse.
“We had a lot of problems; we are so poor and have nothing. If we didn’t have these problems, I wouldn’t have agreed to this marriage,” the father explains.
As the wedding date neared, Farzana’s mother Habiba realized that her husband was unrelenting and decided to take action. She alerted members of the Child Protection Action Network (CPAN), a grassroots network supported by UNICEF that works for the protection of children across Afghanistan, with associates from government, NGOs, youth representatives and provincial councils.
Poverty and low awareness
CPAN members in her village took it upon themselves to ensure that the girl would not marry at such a young age. A local religious leader and member of CPAN, Sultan Mohammad Yusufzai, led the counseling sessions between Farzana’s father and the groom-to-be.
“I told them that Islam prohibits child marriage. Even if a boy and girl are engaged, they cannot live together until the girl has matured. Islam does not permit such marriages until the bride and groom are grown up,” he says. “One of the main reasons for child marriage is poverty, and that forces parents to agree to early marriage. The second reason is low awareness among families about Islamic principles and human rights.”
It took three months of talks and the return of money the groom paid to the father before the two men agreed to cancel the marriage – just 10 days before the wedding.
The decision came as a great relief for Farzana, her mother and siblings.
Farzana managed to escape this terrible arrangement, but many like her are not so fortunate. Child marriage is widespread in Afghanistan, with almost one in five women getting married before age 15. Nearly 46 per cent are married by the time they are 18.
It’s a practice that UNICEF believes can only change with the involvement of the entire community.
“If violence against children remains widespread and socially accepted, most children won’t complain about it, most adults won’t report it, and professionals might hesitate to act upon it,” says Micaela Pasini, UNICEF Afghanistan’s Chief of Child Protection. “So we work with communities to help them to understand and identify how to better protect their children from violence.”
Still living in the safe confines of her home, Farzana is moving on. The ordeal of nearly marrying while still a child is finally behind her. The 12-year-old now goes to school regularly and finds comfort in the presence of religious leader Imam Mohammad Yusufzai and his team from the CPAN.
*Names of children have been changed.
This story was originally published by UNICEF – Afghanistan
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