Afghans 'marry off' baby girls for dowries as starvation looms | Inquirer News
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Afghans ‘marry off’ baby girls for dowries as starvation looms

/ 01:49 PM November 23, 2021
afghan school girls

Afghan girls look on at a school in Kabul, Afghanistan, September 18, 2021. WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS

LONDON/ISLAMABAD — Jobless and engulfed in debt, Afghan brick kiln worker Fazal
said the country’s imploding economy had left him with a stark
choice – marry off his young daughters, or risk the family
starving to death.

Last month, he received a $3,000 dowry payment after handing
over his 13- and 15-year-old daughters to men more than twice
their age. If the money runs out, he may have to marry off his
seven-year-old, he said.

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“I had no other way to feed my family and pay off my debt.
What else could I have done?” he told the Thomson Reuters
Foundation from the Afghan capital, Kabul. “I desperately hope I
won’t have to marry off my youngest daughter.”

Child marriage has increased in tandem with soaring poverty
since the Taliban seized power 100 days ago on Aug. 15, with
reports of destitute parents even promising baby girls for
future marriage in exchange for dowries, women’s rights
activists said.

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They predicted the rate of child marriage – which was
prevalent even before the Taliban’s return – could nearly double
in the coming months.

“It paralyzes (my) heart hearing these stories … It’s not
a marriage. It’s child rape,” said prominent Afghan women’s
rights campaigner Wazhma Frogh.

She said she was hearing of cases every day – often
involving girls under 10 years of age, although it was not clear
if young girls would be forced to have sex before reaching
puberty.

U.N. children’s agency UNICEF said there were credible
reports of families offering daughters as young as 20-days old
for future marriage in return for a dowry.

Crippled by drought and economic collapse, Afghanistan is
set to become the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, according
to U.N. agencies.

As winter sets in, they said millions were on the brink of
starvation, and 97% of households could fall below the poverty
line by mid-2022.

The hardline Islamist group’s sudden return to power saw
billions of dollars in Afghan assets frozen abroad and most
international aid halted. Food prices have rocketed and millions
are jobless or have not been paid.

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Frogh said families were marrying off their girls to reduce
the number of mouths they had to feed, and to obtain dowries,
which typically range from $500 to $2,000, with younger children
attracting higher sums.

Parents are also handing over daughters to settle debts.
Frogh cited a case in which a landlord had taken a distraught
tenant’s nine-year-old girl when he could not pay his rent.

In northwest Afghanistan, she said another man had left his
five children at a mosque because he could not feed them. The
three girls, all thought to be under 13, were wed the same day.

“The number of cases has increased so much because of
starvation. People have nothing and cannot feed their children,”
said Frogh, founder of the Women & Peace Studies Organization,
which works with grassroots women leaders across the country.

“It’s completely illegal, and not allowed in religion,” she
added.

UNICEF said it had started a cash assistance program to
help cut the risks of hunger and child marriage, and was
liaising with religious leaders to stop ceremonies involving
underage girls.

Before the Taliban took over, the legal minimum marriage age
was 16 for girls – below the internationally recognized minimum
of 18.

The Taliban say they only recognize Sharia law which does
not stipulate a minimum age, leaving it open to interpretation.

Rising debt

Brickworker Fazal said his problems began when the economic
crisis halted construction work. Like his fellow laborers, he
had been paid upfront – $1,000 for six months’ work.

With demand for bricks drying up, his boss told him to hand
back his advance, but Fazal, who only gave his first name, had
already spent much of it on medical treatment for his sick wife.

Local residents said many other kiln workers had also been
forced to marry off young girls to repay advances.

The most recent national data show 28% of girls in
Afghanistan marry before they reach 18, and 4% before 15.

But Frogh and Afghan women’s rights activist Jamila Afghani
predicted that up to half of girls could be forced into marriage
before they turn 18 if the crisis continued.

Girls who wed young are at higher risk of marital rape,
domestic abuse, exploitation and dangerous pregnancy
complications.

“It ruins their lives – their psychological, emotional,
physical and sexual health,” said Afghani, president of the
Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom’s Afghan
section, which has 10,000 members across the country.

“These girls are often treated as servants, as slaves.”

Afghani said activists had recently intervened to stop the
marriage of a nine-year-old girl to a man in his 30s for a
50,000 Afghani ($538) dowry in Ghazni province in the southeast.

Schools shut

Rights experts said the Taliban’s closure of girls’ high
schools was also pushing parents to marry off their daughters.

“The two most important risk factors for driving child
marriage are poverty and the lack of access to education,” said
Heather Barr of Human Rights Watch, who has worked with women in
Afghanistan for more than six years.

The Taliban, which banned girls’ education when last in
power from 1996-2001, have said they will eventually be able to
resume school, but have not clarified under what conditions.

Donors want to use aid as leverage to ensure the Taliban
uphold girls’ and women’s rights.

But Barr said life-saving assistance was needed immediately,
adding that delays would leave more families destitute and more
girls at risk of marriage.

“You are not doing women’s rights any favors by starving
women to death,” she said.

($1 = 92.9300 afghanis)

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TAGS: Afghanistan, child marriage, Poverty, starvation, Taliban
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