|© UNICEF Afghanistan/2009/Walther|
|Students play volleyball at the Girls High School in Herat city, Afghanistan, sporting UNICEF girls’ education campaign T-shirts.|
By Cornelia Walther
KABUL, Afghanistan, 30 March 2010 – Narwin is just 14 years old, but she is already engaged to a man that she has never set eyes on. “My parents say they do not care if I’m happy or not,” she says. “They want me married, and that’s it.”
Forced and early marriages entrap girls and deprive them of their basic rights. In forced marriages, one of the partners is not willing to participate, and varying degrees of coercion are involved. In arranged marriages, the families play a leading role, but the individuals getting married can supposedly choose whether to marry or not.
In many cases, the border between forced and arranged marriage is imperceptible.
A violation of rights
The Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women both condemn the violation of girls’ rights implicit in forced and early marriage. Afghanistan has signed these international instruments.
In addition, the Afghan Constitution states: “Any kind of discrimination and privilege among citizens of Afghanistan is forbidden. Citizens of Afghanistan, men and women, have equal rights and responsibilities in front of the law.”
Despite these guarantees, however, only one out of five Afghan women possesses a national identification card, making it difficult for women to fully defend their rights.
“Our Constitution states that a girl must be 16 years old and agree to marry,” says Narwin. “I know this, but even if I dared to oppose my parents, how should I take legal action if I do not have papers to prove my citizenship?”
‘I am only a child’
Forced marriage is a cultural practice in Afghanistan. Marriages are used to settle debts or to strengthen family status through social alliances. Poor families may consider a daughter to be an economic burden, who must be married quickly to reduce the financial strain.
And amidst the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, many parents aim to marry their daughters at young ages to secure their futures.
Hafiza, 17, is one of the lucky girls who managed to escape a forced and early marriage. She was just 10 years old when her family attempted to marry her to a cousin, in exchange for his sister marrying her brother.
“When I saw the person who was supposed to become my husband,” Hafiza recalls, “I said to my parents, ‘How can you think I will marry him? I am only a child right now. You can kill me, but I will never marry him!’ It was hard to argue with them, especially with my mother. Every time I broached the subject, she beat me.”
Hafiza prevailed in the end. She is now in her final year of classes at the Girls High School in Herat city. She plans to open a beauty salon after she completes her education.
Building girls’ self confidence
Education is critical to achieving equality for girls. Yet Afghan girls continue to have limited access to school due to restricted movement, cultural barriers, shortages of female teachers, and poor facilities, especially in rural areas.
In July 2009, UNICEF established Girls' Resource Forums in 20 schools across the west of Afghanistan, where 2,000 girls and 100 female teachers come together to learn, play and discuss issues important to their lives. The forums aim to strengthen the girls’ self confidence and interpersonal skills, by enabling them to talk about themselves, listen to each other and help their peers to make decisions or cope with difficult situations.
Together with its partners, UNICEF is working to make the Convention on the Rights of the Child a reality for girls in Afghanistan, so that Narwin and her peers can decide their own futures.
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