Beyond Price: An Afghan Girlhood

Reporting by Ahmadullah Zahid, ChildFund Afghanistan

On International Women’s Day, we’re spotlighting some of the amazing girls and women we’ve encountered in ChildFund-supported communities. We honor their struggles and cheer their successes.

A young girl stood before a panel of adults in a government office in northern Afghanistan. It was not her first visit.

What is your name, and how old are you?
My name is Nazifa, and I am 12 years old.

Are you happy with your family?
Yes, I am. My mother is a kind woman, and my father is often away from us, working.

Why are you in the district governor’s office?
I presented a written complaint to get out of being married to an old man.

~~~

Afghan girl in purple dress

Nazifa, 12, spent nearly a year trying to get out of her arranged marriage.

How much is a 12-year-old girl worth?

To Nazifa’s grandfather, $2,000 sounded about right. This was the offer from the pair of community elders who approached him a year ago about arranging a marriage between his eldest granddaughter and a young boy from their rural village.

The three men, says Nazifa, showed her a picture of the boy and made her agree to the marriage despite her objections, which included her desire to continue school.

On the wedding night, she was taken to a room where an old man sat. She kissed his hands, the traditional demonstration of respect for elders by Afghanistan’s young people. And then she was made to sit next to him. She began to cry, harder and harder as she came to understand that this elderly man was her new husband ― that she had been deceived, and that there was nothing she could do. Finally, she fell quiet, and the man did as he wanted. He was 72 years old.

Nazifa’s grandfather left immediately after the wedding on a pilgrimage funded by Nazifa’s bride price.

Within two weeks, Nazifa’s husband began to abuse her.

The moment she saw an opening, Nazifa ran home to her mother and told her everything, and they submitted a complaint to district authorities. Eight months later, there was still no resolution.

ChildFund learned of Nazifa’s case through its Social Work Coaching project in Takhar province, which aims to improve child protection systems to address the needs of children at risk. In addition to working with local and national government authorities, the project trains social workers and community outreach workers on child rights, child development and protection, referrals and other social work services. ChildFund is one of several partner organizations in the project, which is supported by UNICEF.

After Nazifa told her story, the room fell quiet, her listeners struck by her tender age, her sweet face, her directness, her passion for education. Her questioner changed the subject.

~~~

Do you go to school?
Yes, when I am not coming to court.

When you go to school, does anyone bother you?
Yes, on the way to school and in class, they all laugh at me and say unpleasant words.

Do you want to continue going to school?
Yes. I will never stop going, even though it’s hard.

If you don’t succeed in getting out of this marriage, what will you do?
I am sure the government will decide in my favor. Otherwise, I can’t accept life with an old, disturbing man, and I will end my life somehow.

~~~

Nazifa was finally able to leave the marriage, and school is easier now, thanks to some support from social workers trained by ChildFund.

Authorities had no good answer as to why this case had taken so long, and there are many more such cases throughout Afghanistan due to the cultural breakdown following the country’s two decades of conflict. Social work is not really a formal profession in Afghanistan, but this is beginning to change as authorities recognize the need for it, thanks largely to awareness raised by ChildFund and others working to strengthen child protection systems in Afghanistan.

We work to expand people’s knowledge about the rights and worth of children, and we help protect as many children as we can from becoming victims.

Because a 12-year-old girl is priceless.

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