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Bride Price
In the midst of serious drought and the global food crisis, Afghan families are resorting to desperate measures – selling daughters as young as seven into marriage.

Parigul is only 11. She is in grade 3 at a rural school in Afghanistan’s Ghor province. Her favourite class is Dari language, her mother tongue. In the presence of guests, she is a quiet child. Clutching her headscarf to her mouth, she lowers her eyes whenever she is addressed. “I like school," she says softly. "I would like to be a doctor."

“I like school. I am a good student. One day I would like to be a doctor.”
Photo courtesy Stephanie Sinclair.

But Parigul isn’t likely to realize that dream. Her father recently arranged for her engagement to a local man who is in his late 20s in exchange for 300,000 Afghanis, the equivalent of $6,700.

Her mother, a frail 35-year-old named Sausan*, is seated in a far corner of the room. "We had to do this," she says with little emotion. Earlier in the week, Sausan gave birth to her seventh child and she is suffering from anemia, resulting from nutritional deficiency and blood loss during labour. She is weary.

"We have no money," says Sausan. "How can nine of us eat on two, maybe three dollars a day, with all the other expenses? We had to sell Parigul in order to pay all the people we owed."

As her mother speaks, Parigul sits quietly by the one window in the dark room. A warm breeze carries the sound of children playing nearby. Every few minutes she turns to look out the window, framed by two worn wooden shutters. She is as expressionless as her mother.

In Afghanistan, in the onslaught of serious drought, and in the midst of a global food crisis, families are resorting to desperate measures, selling daughters as young as seven to ease their debt and pay for food and household expenses. Afghan law states that a girl must be 16 years of age and give consent to marry, but in the face of increasing hunger and debt, such legalities are often overlooked.

According to the Ministry of Women's Affairs in Afghanistan, almost 60 percent of girls are married before the age of 16. The average age is younger still in rural communities, closer to 11 or 12. These official figures, already high, do not reflect what happens during severe drought or times of economic crisis, when families can no longer afford to feed their children.

Even before the current drought, 60 percent of Afghan children under five suffered from chronic malnutrition and 54 percent of children had stunted growth. Abdul Samed Yacobi, 30, is nursing director at Qala-i-Naw hospital in Badghis province. Every day he sees children admitted who suffer from dehydration and malnutrition. "We can only expect more and more problems if the situation continues," he says. "It will only grow worse. The social situation, too. There will be more robberies, more kidnappings, and yes, more people will have to sell their children."

The main staple for most Afghans is wheat flour, used to make bread. In May 2007, the price of an eight-kilogram bag of wheat flour in Badghis province was 80 Afghani ($1.8o). One year later, it was 400 Afghani—a 500 percent increase.

As wheat prices sky-rocket and fodder disappears, families sell animals to subsidize their incomes. But the fiercest winter in 40 years claimed well over 100,000 head of livestock in the western provinces. And with families selling off entire herds, the price of sheep plummeted from $100 to $40 in one year.

A year ago, farmers in Badghis celebrated one of their best harvests in a long time. This year, with only one good rainfall, the winter wheat crops in the province failed. A full month before harvest, families collected dry, headless stalks from the field, hoping to sell what they could as animal fodder. In such a drought, no one speaks of planting for the summer season. They have no seed to plant and they don't expect any precipitation to ensure a crop.

"These days the high price of food is affecting us in a bad way," Sausan explains. "In the past, my husband's work as a labourer covered our expenses. But now, we are borrowing money just to buy food."

Each month, half of the family's income covers the rent for a small, two-room mud house. They survive on very little— tea and bread, dried yoghurt soup, some potatoes, lentils and chickpeas. They haven't tasted meat in a long time.

Parigul and two other siblings receive monthly food rations of lentils, rice and oil through World Vision's Food for Education program, which draws some 75,000 students to schools throughout Badghis and Ghor provinces. But for many families, it is not enough. School staff are concerned that the increasing financial burden on families will lead to more child marriages. "It's already happening," says one teacher, "especially in the rural communities."

Aziza Kamalzadeh, 43, is a midwife instructor in World Vision's Community Midwifery Education program in Ghor. She says the average age to marry in the province is between 13 and 15, but it's not unheard of to find girls as young as seven already engaged, especially in times of extreme drought. "Even there are families exchanging their daughters when they are still in the womb," says Kamalzadeh. The reality for such a child is bleak. She will remain with her family until she is older, perhaps 10 or 12, when she will move to her husband's home, to help with daily chores and eventually bear him children.

The maternity ward in Qala-i-Naw is in a small, dark wing of the hospital. Curtains drawn across doorways barely conceal the cries of women.

"Such early marriage can't be good for a child," says Raima Mohammadeh, 26, a midwife at the Qala-i-Naw hospital and a graduate of World Vision's midwifery training program in Herat, the largest centre in western Afghanistan. She, too, was a young bride, only 14, when her father arranged for her to marry. "Even at 14, the body isn't developed enough. It's still growing," she says. Mohammadeh, a mother of three, lost her first child following a difficult birth. "My body wasn't ready for pregnancy. I wasn't ready. I didn't know how to breastfeed a baby. I was too young—only a child."

According to medical professionals, early marriage is one reason for Afghanistan's high infant and maternal mortality rates. At 165 deaths per 1,000 live births, infant mortality here is among the highest in the world. Statistics say that every 30 seconds an Afghan woman dies of pregnancy-related causes. The Afghan Ministry of Women's Affairs believes early marriage negatively impacts girls on every level: it hurts their health, denies them an education and forces them into repeated cycles of poverty, pregnancy and childbirth. It damages the child emotionally and psycho-socially by reducing her choices in life and limiting any opportunity for empowerment.

Child marriage is a violation of the right of children to freedom from sexual exploitation, as demanded in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Afghanistan is a signatory. According to the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, between 60 and 80 percent of all marriages are forced. In Herat, forced early marriage is an oft-cited reason for the high number of attempted suicides by self- immolation.

Forced into an early marriage by her father, Aisha* became the second wife to a man who abused her. She had a poor relationship with both her mother-in-law and the first wife with whom she shared the home. Returning to her family was not an option, nor could she seek divorce. So at 16, after two years of marriage, she poured kerosene over her body and lit herself on fire. Eighty-five percent of her body was covered in third-degree burns. Doctors could only offer her pain medication as she slowly died, succumbing to her injuries weeks after her admission to the Herat burn unit.

While some children, such as Parigul, are sold out of desperation, the practice is deeply ingrained in social and cultural attitudes. A society so set in its customs does not give way to laws so readily. Under Article 70 of Afghanistan's penal code, the legal age for marriage is 16 for girls, 18 for men, and can only be with consent, never forced. But there is little adherence to this.

Parigul's family does not have any land or livestock left to sell. Parigul is among the last of their "assets." Sausan says that Parigul won't be forced to marry immediately. She can live at home and continue school for four more years.

But this family has been beset by hard times before, and two older sisters have not fared so well. The eldest daughter, Riala, 16, was sold into marriage at 11. Today she is the mother of two. The second daughter, Halima, 14, is also married with an 18-month-old daughter. Parigul will be fortunate if she is permitted to continue her schooling.

Sausan's voice has little anxiety as she describes the family's unthinkable situation. But this is clearly not what she wanted. "All I ever dreamed of having was a good house, enough food and a healthy family—a peaceful country, too, where my children could get an education."

Fidgeting nervously with the knot of the headscarf that now hangs loosely beneath her chin, Parigul begins to open up. "I wish we had a developed country. One that was peaceful and green." Then she adds, "Where people were free."

Originally published in Child View, Winter 2008.




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