From her dolls to her husband in a single day
The day she got engaged, Sakina started out playing with her dolls in the street.
There was no indication that the 13-year-old was scheduled to meet her future husband. But then her father summoned her out of the street and planted her before a male stranger.
“I saw him and they told me I was getting married to him,” Sakina remembered in an on-camera interview with The Globe and Mail.
Next, she learned that she had been sold by her father for 600,000 afghanis, about $13,000. Although she was surprised at the abruptness of the transaction, Sakina doesn’t remember being upset.
“Among us, there is no happiness or sadness in weddings. It’s just something we do,” she said. “It is not about whether we like our husbands or not. We just get married.”
It was after the wedding that the horror began.
“My father-in-law and my mother-in-law are violent to me. My husband can’t protect me,” she said. “What can I do?”
There aren’t many options for women such as Sakina. She found herself fused to her brutish new relatives by way of an old tradition in Afghanistan, one that international aid and human-rights groups hoped would have faded by now.
In 2005, the Afghan government signed the Protocol for the Elimination of Forced and Child Marriage, a plan sponsored by the United Nations Development Program that aimed to phase out forced and child marriage by 2008. Although it was trumpeted at the time, the protocol clearly wasn’t put into effective practice. Seventy to 80 per cent of Afghan women are still subject to forced marriage, UN statistics show. And more than half of all girls who get married are like Sakina, given away before the legal age of 16, often because their families need the money.
“People are generally aware of the negative impacts of ... paying bride price, despite its widespread use,” said a recent report by the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, an independent organization based in Kabul. The report noted that economic concerns override worries about the impact of forced marriages on the brides, in many cases, because “... collecting bride price can be a key livelihood survival strategy for girls’ families.”
Not all arranged marriages go badly.
Homaira, a 40-year-old widow who lives with her in-laws and her five children, didn’t know her husband when she was matched with him at age 19.
“My parents made the decision, but I agreed and I was also happy with it,” she said. At the time, she hoped for happiness and children.
“All my wishes came true,” she said. “God gave me sons and daughters. ... It was a good life when my husband was alive,” she said, offering a few details about his death. “My husband was in his car, people killed him,” she said. “They said that they killed him because he was working in the government.”
Sitara, a 15-year-old child bride also interviewed by The Globe, felt quite differently about her marriage. She was told at the age of 14 that she had been sold for 700,000 afghanis, about $15,000, and would need to quit the eighth grade to be married.
“I was very concerned. ... I asked myself why I was getting married at such a young age, in my childhood. Instead I should have ... continued with my education in order to become somebody in society,” she said.
In spite of her reservations, she didn’t protest the arrangement.
“It has become common. I’ve even seen that when girls are born, they promise them to 30 year olds, [or to]60-year-old men,” she explained.
Sitara’s words may prompt an almost knee-jerk Western impulse to question why she didn’t resist the marriage transaction. However, resisting tradition is not the norm in this part of Afghanistan, where strict cultural codes of honour are followed more closely than laws. Instead of freedom, disobedience could create more distress – disownment by family, or quite possibly death.
“The pressure to consent to marriages is often even greater for girls, for whom there is less chance of exercising independence from the family and who are judged far more severely than boys if they go against their parents’ wishes,” read the AREU report.
For many young women, countering their family’s plans for their future is unfathomable.
“It is common that our father marries us to someone and we meet him at the wedding night. It’s not really up to us,” explained Shahzia, a 14-year-old student in Kandahar who has yet to be married. In an interview, a Globe videographer asked her whether she perceives herself to have control over her life.
“No,” she said, sounding matter of fact.
“You can’t say that you want to marry this man, or that you don’t?” The Globe asked.
“No, I don’t have the power,” she said. “It all depends on the family.”
Whether that reality raised any emotion in the girl was impossible to discern – her entire body, save for her wide eyes behind protruding, metal-rimmed glasses, was sheathed in a patterned burka.
Shukria, a mother of six in Kandahar who is currently married to an Afghan National Police officer, has experienced the indignity of being sold by her father twice. The first time, like Sitara, she was 14.
“I was little. I just knew that when a girl was getting married people bought clothes for her or they would buy shoes, make-up and jewellery for her,” she said. “And these were things I was looking forward to, ... but I didn’t know what a devil my husband would be, or what he would want, or what I should do with him,” she said.
After her first husband was killed, her father, unable to support her and the four children she had borne, sold her again. By this time, she was wiser in the ways of marriage.
“When they gave me to my second husband,” she said, “I knew about those things.”