Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Afghanistan: When the Birth of a Girl Brings Sorrow

Mothers may face ridicule and mistreatment if they have daughters rather than sons.
By Abdullah Mukhlis

The birth of each of Shoghla’s five children plunged her into misery, because they were all girls.

“While I was in labour with each daughter, the pain didn’t bother me. But afterwards I cried for a week without stopping. Every member of the family made sarcastic comments and bad-mouthed me,” said Shoghla, who lives in Gardez, the main town in Paktia, a province in southeastern Afghanistan. “My mother-in-law threatened me by saying, ‘You’re unable to have a boy, so I’m going to marry my son to a second wife.’ Their comments were more wounding than bullets. My mother-in-law used to tell me with that God knew my true nature and so had cursed me.”

Afghan society has long valued the birth of sons over daughters. Although attitudes are changing in cities and amongst those with more education, conservative traditions persist. Boys are seen as a guarantors of the family’s economic security and especially among Pashtuns, who make up the majority in Paktia, as future defenders of its honour and rights in the traditional code of code.

This means that the birth of a son is greeted with celebration.

“When a boy is born, his family throws a party, fires guns into the air, and slaughters chickens and sheep in honour of the mother,” said Zarmina Shams, head of the women’s rights section of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) for the southeast of the country. “But when a girl is born, her mother is spoken to sarcastically or even beaten upm and a second wife might be taken.”

Shams said serious cases of abuse had been reported to her organisation. Sometimes women were badly injured or even killed. She added that the AIHRC was trying to change attitudes through outreach work with the media and Muslim scholars.

Describing her own treatment, local woman Shaperei said the birth of her daughter had been seen as a sorrowful occasion.

 “When a girl is born, the mother is not provided with the same food given to mothers when a male child is born,” she said.

“When they first informed me of the birth of a daughter, not only I but my mother-in-law and sister-in-law also started crying,” she continued, adding, “My brother’s wife ridiculed me and said, ‘If you were a good woman, you would have given birth to a boy’. Everyone was cruel to me and my husband told me, ‘I will take a second wife, because you haven’t given birth to a boy.’”

Zarghun Roshan, a doctor at the Khaliqyar gynaecology and obstetrics clinic, said family members often urged medical staff to ensure a son was born.

“The woman’s brother, husband, brother-in-law and other family members tell us that if the child is a boy they will give us a bonus,” he said. “Once a patient was brought into our hospital and her husband told me that if the child was a boy, he would give me his car. But I told him that these matters are in all in the hands of God, and we could do nothing to help.”

Dr Roshan added that medicine had no way of influencing the sex of a foetus.

Lal Mohammad Ahmadzai, a sonographer in Gardez, sees at least 50 patients a day and described similar situations.

“Most times, when the baby is a girl, I cannot tell the parents. Sometimes they even get angry at me,” he said. “However, when the baby is a boy, they are not only delighted, they give me a [cash] gift.”

Ahmadzai said people simply did not understand how sex was decided.

“People’s level of awareness is very low and they think that the mother plays a role in deciding whether the child is a boy or a girl. However, according to medical science, it’s decided by the father’s sperm. People should be taught that mothers cannot choose whether to have a boy or a girl,” he said.

Outside the hospital, Shiringul, a resident of Paktia’s Zurmat district, waited despondently.

“My sixth niece has just been born, and my brother… doesn’t have even a single son,” she said. “God blesses boys. They can work and they’re important for ‘trabgani’ [code of conduct within extended  family] whereas a woman is just a dependent. Her father will have trouble from her for the whole of his life. Now I’m going to have to get a second wife for my brother who will give him sons.”

Ismail Larrawai, a Paktia University lecturer and civil society activist, agreed that Pashtuns believed boys fulfilled a more important social role.

“People are poor so they need to be able to earn money. And in this society, only men can do this. And the biggest problem is that when someone passes away without a son, the issue of ‘miras’ [inheritance] arises,” he said. A wife is not entitled to miras, as she herself is counted as part of the inheritance according to Pashtun custom, and daughters are unlikely to be given a share.

Larrawai puts this down to lack of education.

“Until people rid themselves of this ignorance, they will continue to see the birth of a girl as something bad and shameful,” he said.

Islamic scholars say these customs have nothing to do with the rules of the faith.

"I always say that such behaviour is a relic of the era of [pre-Islamic] ignorance; it amounts to interference in the affairs of God," Maulavi Mohammad Shah, the director of Paktia’s department of Hajj and religious affairs,  "If someone is sad about the birth of a girl or threatens the child’s mother, it is a grave sin,” he said.

Changing attitudes will take time. Wiping her tears with a corner of her headscarf, Paktia resident Najiba said she had already suffered a double trauma.  

“When my son was born, we were all so happy. The family took good care of me, but then due to bad luck, my son got sick and died,” she told IWPR. “My next child was a girl, and after that, my husband prepared to marry again. No one considered my sorrow.”

This report was produced under IWPR’s Promoting Human Rights and Good Governance in Afghanistan initiative, funded by the European Union Delegation to Afghanistan.