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Kabul Korrespondence

Fresh, factual, and funky view of Afghanistan and the surrounding Central Asian region

Engaged to wed, and still a toddler

Monday, December 03, 2007

The Associated Press
By Alisa Tang

Despite efforts in Afghanistan, child marriage persists.

KABUL - When asked about her engagement party this summer, little Sunam glanced blankly at her family, then fiddled with her gold-sequined engagement outfit - a speechless response not out of shyness but because she does not yet talk much. Sunam is 3.

The toddler was engaged to a 7-year-old cousin, Nieem, in June, in a match made by their parents.

Despite the efforts of the government and rights groups, the engagement and marriage of children still persists in this country, especially among poor, uneducated families in the countryside.

About 16 percent of Afghan children are married under the age of 15, according to recent data from UNICEF. And there is evidence that the poverty of recent years is pushing down the marriage age further in some areas.

The practice can force couples into a miserable union and sometimes expose the girl to violence if she resists.

Sunam's father committed her in marriage as a gift to his sister, Fahima, who does not have a daughter and desperately wants one. Marriage between first cousins is common in Afghanistan because families believe it is better to know their in-laws well. The two families live in the same modest housing compound in Kabul.

In an unhappy forced marriage, the man can take a woman he loves as a second wife, according to Islamic and Afghan culture. But the girls are trapped. Some commit suicide. In Kapisa province, north of Kabul, an 18-year-old shot and killed herself because her family would not break off her three-year engagement to a drug addict, Afghanistan's Pajhwok News Agency reported in August.

Others run away, sometimes falling into drugs or prostitution.

'Bride price' The minimum legal age of marriage in Afghanistan is 16 for girls and 18 for boys. Yet, child marriages account for 43 percent of all marriages, according to the United Nations. The reasons are often economic: The girl's family gets a "bride price" of double the per-capita income for a year or more, according to the World Bank.

The families of Sunam and Nieem are convinced that if the two grow up together knowing they will be married, they will be happy to wed in the future. The plan is for them to marry when Sunam is 14 or 15.

"We are Pashtun people. If we engage them, there is no way to separate them. They will marry," Najiba said. "In our tribe, it is like this. When they get engaged, they cannot divorce."

It is nearly impossible to break engagements, "because you're considered the other family's property," said Manizha Naderi, director of Women for Afghan Women. "You're theirs now. You've been given away. It's obviously barbaric. It's going to take generations to change this custom."
posted by Travis, 1:23 pm


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