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

Forced Marriage Leads to Tragedy

A murder highlights the problems created when young women are forced to marry against their will.
By Qais Faqiri

Four months after being forced to marry a man more than twice her age, Sultana Bibi's body was found buried in the village of Qalacha, near Balkh, not far from the residence she shared with her husband.


Police said she was murdered, and that her husband has confessed to the killing.


Sultana, 18, had been engaged to marry a man close to her own age. But he died of an illness just before their wedding, she was forced to marry his older brother, relatives told IWPR.


The tragic end to their short-lived marriage points to the problem of forced marriages, a practice that continues in Afghanistan despite the opposition of an internationally supported central government and increased attention to women's rights since the fall of the fundamentalist Taleban regime.


"I think 80 per cent of girls are victims of forced marriages,” said Malalai Usmany, head of the Union for the Defence of Women's Rights, a private advocacy group in Balkh province.


Qazi Sayed Mohamad, acting head of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission's office in Mazar-e-Sharif, said there are several reasons why women become the victims of forced marriages.


"Sometimes this pressure is put on the girl from her family, but sometimes women are victims of tribal conflicts," he said.


When a man kills another man in Afghanistan, tribal elders may order the killer to give a woman from his family to the victim's family as compensation for the death, and the woman will likely be forced to marry a brother, son, nephew or other relative of the victim, Sayed Mohammad said.


And sometimes, families force their daughters to marry in order to bind two families closer together.


Sultana's troubles began last summer, when her fiancé Saif Uddin died of cancer. His family told Sultana that she would have to marry one of his brothers.


Both Sultana's family and Saif Uddin’s are ethnic Pashtuns, who sanction such practices.


By the autumn it had become clear that 45-year-old Zia Uddin, who was already married, wanted to wed Sultana. Her family objected, Sultana's mother, Watan Bibi, said, allegedly because the man’s existing wife had threatened violence if the younger woman joined the household.


Sultana's father, Noor Mohammad, refused to allow the marriage to go ahead. But in October, he was kidnapped. The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission is investigating.


Meanwhile, Sultana went to the Balkh police to report that Zia Uddin intended to force her to marry him. But one local police officer, who declined to let his name be used, admitted that her plea was ignored because “there was no one to hear her and protect her".


According to Sultana's relatives, soldiers loyal to a local commander came and took the girl to the village of Qalacha, where she was married to Zia Uddin. Sultana’s father was released from captivity one day later. Noor Mohammad told family members that he had been held in the basement of a military compound belonging to Jamiat-e-Islami, one of the two main armed factions in the north.


Sultana’s family said they saw their daughter only once more, around six weeks after the wedding, and claim that she described her life as one of hardship and abuse. "Her husband was hitting her, as did his first wife and his son,” Sultana’s mother Watan Bibi told IWPR.


According to police, Zia Uddin confessed to killing Sultana not long after her body was discovered. He is currently being held in prison while the investigation continues.


The police say that the case has been complicated by allegations that Zia Uddin used his connections to the Jamiat-e-Islami party to force the marriage.


Women’s rights activists say that in northern Afghanistan, where Jamiat-e-Islami and its rival faction, Junbesh-e-Milli, wield more power than the central government, armed men often play a role in pressuring women and their families to go along with unwanted marriages.


"Armed men are intervening in every sector of human life and breaking the laws. Forced marriage is part of these interventions,” said Maria Raheen, a lecturer at Balkh University’s journalism department and director of a local women's group.


General Atta Mohammad, commander of the seventh military corps controlled by Jamiat-e-Islami, has promised to cooperate with the investigation, Sayed Mohamad said.


Qais Faqiri is an IWPR reporter in Mazar-e-Sharif.