Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Mothers Pay Price for Bearing Girls
In Afghanistan, death, humiliation and threats are often the punishment for a mother who gives birth to a girl, because of the economic hardship and social stigma brought by a daughter.
Many women suffer abuse because they bear girls. Sharifa, 32, from Paktia province, said that after she gave birth to her fourth daughter, her husband didn't come home for a week. When he finally did return, he ordered her to pack his luggage. He said that he was going to Iran.
"I wept to make him stay, but he refused and left," she said. "He came back four years later and told me that if I bear another daughter, 'Either I will kill you or marry another woman.'
"But I again bore a daughter and was really frustrated and sad," she said. Then her husband married another woman, who also bore him two daughters. "Now he makes excuses to beat us both every day," said Sharifa.
At Kabul's Rabia Balkhi hospital, Dr Frozan said she sees numerous examples of the problems faced by women who give birth to girls.
She said that two months ago a mother brought her daughter to hospital. The girl's womb had been ruptured and the foetus inside was dead.
The girl's mother told the doctor that, in the fifth month of her daughter's pregnancy, an ultrasound revealed that she was carrying a girl. The young woman's husband became so enraged that he beat his wife and even sat on her stomach so that she would abort the child.
Soraya Parlika, head of the Afghanistan Women's Union, said that "for people living in Third World countries [like Afghanistan], the preference for a son is rooted in economic concerns.
"Afghan society is historically patriarchal and men are responsible for finances in the household, therefore families consider birth of a daughter as bad luck – or even tragic," she said. In addition, she noted that "the role of women is subservient in society and women have been considered the second sex."
Parlika said another reason for the prejudice against girls is inheritance laws. Women have some rights of inheritance but the maximum that they can inherit when there is no son is half of their father's income, according to Sharia law.
In addition, should they have no sons when their husbands die, half the family home is likely to go to their late husband's brother.
In Afghanistan, women leave their own families when married and go to live in their husband's home. They cannot return to visit their brothers, sisters and parents, except with their husband's express permission.
Parlika said she knew of cases where women encouraged their husbands to marry a second time so that the family's property would not go to the husband's male relatives.
Men speak unabashedly about their desire for sons.
Mohammed Zahir, a driver in the capital, already had three daughters. When his wife came home with their fourth child, members of his family lied to him and said he had a son. He was delighted and believed the family's finances would improve
"When I saw my child, he looked so beautiful. His eyes were lovely and his eyebrows outstanding. I thanked God!" he said.
"But then I sat in the corner of the room and suddenly my elder daughter came and told me, 'Father! Did you see my small sister?' I was shocked. I felt as if my family had shot me with a whole magazine of bullets," he said.
To avoid their husband's wrath, women have been known to swap their own female daughters for male infants at the hospital.
"It happens frequently," said one doctor in Kabul, who asked not to be named. This doctor added that sometimes doctors and nurses themselves are involved in the exchanges.
"In Afghan society, bearing a son is heroism and bearing a daughter means shame," said gynaecologist Maryam Bahram Azimi in explaining why women are sometimes driven to such desperate measures.
Anecdotal evidence of baby swapping is common but few women will admit that they have done it. One women from the capital, who asked not to be named, said she gave birth to a girl last month but left hospital with a boy. But while acknowledging that she took home the wrong infant, she claimed that it had merely been a mistake.
In the northern province of Takhar, Nayam, 14, who works in the home of a female doctor there, said he had heard of a case where an ultrasound examination revealed that a pregnant woman was carrying a girl. But when the woman left hospital, she took home a boy. Later, Nayam said he overheard the mother and mother-in-law talking. "They had swapped the baby," he said.
The status of women in Afghanistan is partly due to Sharia law, which is interpreted in different ways, according to the views of the mullahs and religious conservatives.
Ayatollah Mohammad Asef Muhsini,leader of one of the more liberal Islamic parties, Harakat-e-Islami, and head of Afghanistan's Shia Islamic council, admits it is traditional for people to feel unhappy about the birth of a daughter in this society.
But he said that there's no reason for that attitude. "A mother was once a girl herself, so when she brings a son into the world she is happy. And why should she feel unhappy about a child of the same sex as herself?"
He also pointed out that women are valued in Islam, "Whenever our Prophet came home, he kissed his daughter Fatima's hand, and he showed respect for her as a person," he said.
Yet women sometimes take their son's side over that of their daughter-in-law.
Shafiqa, 22, fainted while giving birth to a daughter. When her husband learned she had a girl, he left her at the hospital. It was only two days later that her mother-in-law arrived to take her home. But even then, Shafiqa was subjected to sarcastic and vicious verbal abuse from the older woman.
Since the fall of the Taleban, there has been a marked change in the freedom of women across the country. But altering attitudes takes a long time.
"Bringing about change and reforming traditions will not happen all at once," said Alhaj Ali Ahmad Fakoor, of the country's Human Rights Commission.
Parlika said more change is needed for the status of women in the country to improve. "If women enjoyed the full right to work and to socialise as men do in this society, this negative attitude would change," she said.
Mohammed Jawad Sharidzada is a freelance writer and Lailuma Sadid is a staff reporter for IWPR in Kabul.
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