Women's Empowerment and Leadership Development for Democratisation
In Afghanistan, Foundation of Solidarity for Justice Organisation (FSJO) is striving to ensure every child gets to have a childhood.
Here, girls are married off as young as six; forty-six percent are wedded before the age of eighteen. According to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, between sixty to eighty percent of all marriages in Afghanistan are forced, and one in four Afghani women aged twenty to twenty-four have had their first child before eighteen. These grim statistics, while certainly harrowing, have even more hiding under them; early maternal deaths, rising domestic violence, a denial of education and the refusal of fundamental human rights keep these women—or rather, girls—from undergoing stages of mental and physical development that is every human being’s right.
To tackle this issue, the FSJO launched workshops in the provinces of Kabul and Parwan between August and December 2013. They aimed to raise a keen awareness on the epidemic, and to breed a social attitude of active discouragement against the practice. The workshops, remarkably, were a big success, and the organizers saw a number of participants coming forward to promise to make an effort against the issue, and to encourage others to do the same. Government officials, teachers, members of civil society organizations, Islamic Scholars (Mullahs) and community leaders were amongst the participants. The total came to seventy-four, comprising of 42 women and 32 men.
These workshops however were not easy to conduct, and convincing people of the harms of child marriage took some work. The FSJO encountered all kinds of justifications for child marriage. Religious leaders and family members used religion foremost, citing Bibi Ayesha’s example as a woman who married the prophet at the age of nine. Others were of the opinion that an arranged marriage is not a forced marriage, and that a young girl is too naïve to make her own decisions and that the family knows best. Socially, too, an arranged marriage is by far more acceptable; a girl choosing her own life partner would bring shame upon not only her family, but possibly her whole community. Older women and men believed that young girls should be married as soon as they began to menstruate.
Religious leaders tended to hold back on having a public opinion on the issue, which was a big hurdle. Even if, in their hearts, they were against the idea, they hesitated in being open about it. Still, some slowly emerged, something which was encouraging to see—even more encouraging, in fact, when they allowed the use of their mosques and Friday prayers to promote FSOJ’s message. Others even agreed to directly intervene in families that were staunchly forcing their children against their will. Teachers and other educational authorities were immensely helpful as well, as they hosted workshops at their schools. The project’s aim was to specifically target teachers and students, which they were considerably successful in.
Approaching proponents of child/forced marriage required careful tact on FSJO’s part. A successful technique was to turn the Bibi Ayesha justification on its head. They asked the participants: if all girls, like Bibi Ayesha, can be married at the age of nine, does that mean all men are like the Prophet? Would all men behave with their wives the way the Prophet did? The argument made a strong case; many seriously reconsidered their positions. Medical and scientific research proved to be useful backing as well, and when leaders used with social and psychological report on the repercussions of child marriage, their audience was notably receptive.
These impactful workshops met with a number of successes on various levels. For one, they provided a platform on which participants could share otherwise repressed stories. Mrs. Farah*, for example, told the story of a woman who faced continual violence from her husband as she not borne him a son. She left her newborn in the hospital after seeing that it was a girl, again, for the third time; out of sheer desperation, she tried to take someone else’s son. She was caught and arrested, and confessed that she could not bear her husband’s punishment for bearing a third daughter. To her, the action she took seemed to be the only solution available.
Another participant, Mrs. Sara*, then told the story of her daughter who, against her will, was forced by her father to marry her aunt’s son. So averse was she to the idea that she tried to kill herself some months into the marriage. Mrs. Sara expressed her concern over her daughter’s future, who had now just had a child, and although this had made her behavior had change, her relationship with her husband had only declined.
Mrs. Sharmeen*, a third attendant, mourned the lack of choices young girls are given about their futures. She spoke of a young girl who, after being forced to marry, came home to her mother to tell her she had never had any sexual relations with her husband, and then escaped with another boy shortly after. A few days later she was caught, arrested and then jailed for a period of four years. Now she is back at her father’s house, and her husband wants neither to divorce her nor to live with her.
Another example is Mrs. Tehmina*, who shared her sister’s story. Her husband had escaped with a widow woman and had faced zero repercussions, despite how both had abandoned their families. No one, including the government had taken any action against them. Mrs. Tehmina’s sister worries that her husband will try to kidnap her children, and is now keeping them from attending school. No one knows what may happen next.
Mrs. Rashida*, then, expressed Minahil’s* story, who was fifteen when she established a relationship with a boy via cell phones. She escaped with him after five months, and when her family finally found her she was already married to him and refused to return back to her father’s.
These were the sorts of harrowing stories shared during the workshops. It was after they were voiced that the participants collectively became more aware of the problem that child/forced marriages create, and how they have destroyed the lives of so many. The discussions were lively. At one point men involved drew attention to the fact that boys, too, were forced into unwanted marriages by m others who refused to give them any decision power, and how they too wanted to be heard.
By the end of the workshops, the participants themselves had shared different suggestions and approaches to take on the matter. They acknowledged, for example, that forced marriages lead to higher chances of domestic violence, that a lack of knowledge and awareness, archaic and misinterpreted customs and traditions perpetuate violence. They agreed that girls should be given the right to decide about their future husbands and should not be forced into anything. Perhaps the biggest thing was the recognition thatt forced marriages actually go against Islam’s principles, and that the constitution of Afghanistan clearly states that both men and women have equal rights. They promised to train other women to raise awareness on this issue, and on the negative outcomes of forced marriages, such as conflicts within families and an increase in domestic violence.
The outreach statistics show the extensive reach of the project . In Kabul’s Bagrami district, FSJO reached 500 people in the first six months, including other teachers, students and parents, and a total of 3690 people were targeted in four districts within the two provinces. Miss Fatima*, a volunteer advocate in the Bagrami district, admitted she had not been too interested in working against cases of child/forced marriages, but the workshops made her change her focus. Mr. Ali*, a volunteer advocate in Parwan’s Jabul Saraj district, has been the head of a council that covers fifteen villages, and recognized the change these workshops had brought on his views of the issue. To him, this issue is now a priority. Mr. Mustafa*, a community elder and volunteer advocate of the organization, said he had been involved community members’ issues for years but never before in that of child marriage, and only now feels more aware and inspired, and will actively advocate against it. All these advocates were enthusiastic about the future of this project, and encouraged team members at FSJO to take these same workshops to remote areas of Afghanistan and spread the message as far as they could.
In fact, FSJO was able to make two direct impacts when Manhal*, from Kabul, was forcefully engaged at nine years of age. She was completely unaware of what was happening to her, but with the support of the newly trained community leaders, her family agreed to postpone her engagement till she was at least sixteen. Maria*, also nine, faced a similar issue, and like Manhal, was able to break up her engagement thanks to the community leaders’ help.
The resounding success was further felt when the provincial departments of Ministry of Women Affairs requested training for their new staff on matters of child/forced marriage. The MoWA, in compliance with the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, also agreed to monitor the situation and update the FSJO on future cases of child and forced marriage.
Promising results indeed! This remarkable receptivity showed a commendable effort both on the part of PSOJ and on the community leaders they trained. It is heartening to see that the message reached not just the grassroots level, but also to those in local power; legal advocates, councilmen, and the Ministry. We hope that in a few years, the statistics will only have improved , and the status status of child/forced marriage will have dwindled. Perhaps with enough time we will be seeing female members of Afghan society fully participating in and contributing to society!
*Names changed for the sake of privacy.