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Justice for girls in Afghanistan

Support for those who defy social norms

© UNICEF Afghanistan/2010/Crowe
Young children, including a group of girl students, wait to be allowed inside a school in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif.

By Sarah Crowe

MAZAR-E-SHARIF, Afghanistan, 20 April 2010 – The six girls huddle together over tea, giggling and pulling at each other’s veils and talking ‘girl talk’. They’re keen to show off their English, talking about their favourite Bollywood stars and imitating their moves. But under the veils, behind the lightness, there’s tragedy here.

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This is a juvenile rehabilitation centre, and the girls’ three rooms – one for sleeping, one for sewing, and one for praying – have become their limbo. The girls are doing time for ‘moral’ crimes such as adultery, for bringing shame on their families.

All of the girls have complicated stories. One 16-year-old begins to weep as she tells how she ran off with a boy who was not the one her parents wanted her to marry. Another girl has a baby. Yet another recalls how her husband used to beat her, until she ran away.

A couple of the girls’ cases are on appeal and they may be freed soon, but some will end up spending years in the centre. Even when they are freed, shame can be a permanent punishment in this conservative society.

A safe haven

In another part of town stands a secret shelter that looks like an up-market guest house. In a large, modern kitchen, a group of young women are having a good lunch of lamb, potatoes and bread.

© UNICEF Afghanistan/2010/Crowe
Girl students use UNICEF notepads and stationery distributed at a primary school in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan.

The girls here have no legal charges against them but have escaped violence and abuse, or have run away from those who would ‘sell’ them and traffic them like products. Four years ago, there were only eight cases in this shelter. Now there are 40 – a good sign, child protection experts say, of growing awareness of Afghan girls’ rights.

For all of the shelter’s residents, girlhood was brutally interrupted. In this safe haven they’re cared for and can care for their own.

One of them, Neelab, 18, has a three-year-old daughter with jet-black eyes and a cheeky temperament. Neelab tells a typical story: Her poverty-stricken parents made her marry a violent husband to save her from ‘shame’ when she was just 14 years old. He beat her so badly that she had a miscarriage and lost her second child. Now she wants her voice to be heard so others can learn.

‘I never wanted to get married’

“I wanted to go to school and complete my education. I never wanted to get married,” says Neelab. “Parents should allow girls to attain legal age and should allow girls to complete their education.

“My request is that, if you can, take the message through TV to all parents – that they should not exchange their daughters for money and they should not worry about the honour of the family,” she adds. “As soon as their child is in her teenage years, they should not marry her off without thinking whether she will be happy.”

UNICEF helps with legal aid for girls struggling to realize their rights in Afghanistan, and has supported vocational training in juvenile rehabilitation centres and safe houses across the country. In addition, a huge investment has been made in educating girls. Against the backdrop of ongoing – and escalating – attacks on schools, aid workers, girl students and women teachers, this has been no easy task.

Resisting early marriage

However, tucked away from the conflict, there are rays of hope all over Afghanistan. Abdul-ali-Mazari is one of many schools here brimming over with girls, crowded in classrooms and out in the open. More Afghan girls are now in school, a development that’s creating greater awareness about their rights and arming them with choices for life.

© UNICEF Afghanistan/2010/Crowe
Neelab, 18, stays with her three-year-old daughter at a safe house for Afghan women in Mazar-e-Sharif.

Education is viewed, for example, as a social vaccine to help girls resist early marriage.

“The first protection the girls receive from education is to get to know their rights,” says UNICEF Child Protection Officer Farid Dastgeer. “We also need to provide opportunities for girls when they graduate, so that they can earn as much as a boy earns in the community.”

Key to success

But Mr. Dastgeer cautions: “Peace is the key to any success in any area, and especially in child protection, so if there is war, there is limitation of access to the rural areas [and] there is little chance we get to know the real problems of children from those areas.… We need peace so that the community comes forward with their problems, and then UNICEF, along with partners, addresses those problems.”

Achieving peace won’t be a walk in the park, but there are places where children have filled schools and classrooms, where families can walk around freely, where childhood is not interrupted. There is real momentum towards progress for girls and boys in parts of Afghanistan.




March 2010: UNICEF's Sarah Crowe reports on UNICEF's efforts to help protect Afghan girls from violence and early marriage.
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19 April 2010: UNICEF Child Protection Officer Farid Dastgeer speaks about the challenges of keeping girls in school in Afghanistan.
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