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

Tragic Endings for Many Child Brides

Many young girls continued to be forced into marriages with older men.
By Najibullah Amiri

Zeinab was 10 and had no choice. Her father sold her for 1,200 US dollars into marriage to a 50-year-old deaf mute. Her wedding night was a brutal affair, which she later described it as "rape".


Over the next few years, she kept running back to her family home but her father beat her and chained her until her husband came to take her away.


Finally, Zeinab ran to Kabul, where she met with a kind woman who took her into her home. She lived with the women’s family and, after some years, met a young male relative. The pair became engaged and then married.


After six months living happily together, Zeinab became pregnant and finally decided to tell her new husband her true story.


He felt he should meet her parents, and went to visit them, looking forward to telling them Zeinab was well and inviting them to visit in return.


But when they knocked on her father’s door, it was not Zeinab’s father who greeted them but the police. The young couple was arrested and imprisoned for an illegal marriage.


Zeinab's real name has been withheld to protect her identity, but stories similar to hers can be heard across Afghanistan.


Every day, teenage girls are forced into marriage with older men without their consent. And if the marriage goes wrong and they run away from their marital home to seek help from their mother and father, they are frequently rebuffed.


Zeinab was one of the lucky ones. Her case was finally taken up by German charity, Medica Mondiale, a German-based non-governmental organization that seeks to protect the rights of women, and the court ruled that her first marriage was illegal and that her second, voluntary marriage was lawful.


Many girls dread the prospect of a child marriage.


According to a study conducted last year by Save the Children, and cited in Medica Mondiale’s report, entitled Child Marriage in Afghanistan: A Preliminary Briefing, girls between the ages of 11 and 14 often spoke out against the practice.


“I wish they could not force me to get married at an age that is not appropriate,” one young girl from Jalalabad is quoted as saying. “Girls are not allowed to decide about their marriage,” said another.


In Kandahar, girls feel much the same way, according to the report. "Early marriages makes me sad because we do not get higher education,” one is quoted as saying, while the other reported, "I'm afraid of early marriage,” and "I wish I did not have to marry early."


While figures on child marriage are hard to come by, a study conducted by Medica Mondiale, found that out of 452 married women who were interviewed in Herat, 28 per cent had wed before the age of 16


Frishta is a child bride from Kabul. Now 18, her long legs are tucked under her, as she sits quietly sewing as she tells her story.


She was just nine years old when her father engaged her to a boy of 20. Her mother tried to tell him that the boy was too old, but he dismissed his wife's concerns, reasoning, "Girls grow up quickly. You were just 13 when I married you and nothing has happened to you."


So Frishta married at 13. But when she arrived at her husband's family home, she discovered that didn't even know how to do domestic chores.


Her mother-in-law humiliated and insulted her. And the work was hard. Then, when she became pregnant at the age of 14, she lost her child. "After a year I became pregnant but had a stillbirth,” she said.


She said the doctor told her that she lost her baby because of all the physical work and lifting that she was forced to do in the house.


Although just a teenager, she is now the mother of two children. Yet she remains haunted by her experience of giving birth. "I still have the pains I felt in my first delivery," she said.


"I'm just 18 years old but everyone thinks I'm 25 or 26. And it's all because of early marriage and the pains I suffered when trying to give birth."


Dr Nasreen Uriakhail, director of Rabia Balkhi hospital in Kabul, said many young mothers are neither physically or mentally mature enough to bear children and that the pregnancies often end in stillbirths or miscarriages. Girls can also face lifelong physical problems after having endured a pregnancy at such a young age.


She said that the bones of young girls have not grown to full strength. Pregnancy puts an extra load on them which can cause deformation of the pelvic cavity and cause gynaecological problems. She said that when the time comes to deliver a child, the tissues can easily tear.


For many child brides, their forced marriages end in tragedy.


Retired Colonel Mohammad Khan, 75, said he left Kabul five years ago for Ghazni province. He had lost his property during the civil war.


"So I married my 13-years-old daughter to a 40-year-old man to be able to stay alive," he said.


But after the marriage, his daughter was always complaining about the behaviour of her husband's family. Yet every time she went to visit her father, he sent her back.


Years passed and the teenager became weak and pale, day-by-day. She kept on telling her father that her husband abused and beat her and that the family gave her heavy work that she was too frail to do. Finally, she wrote a letter to her father, asking him to meet her.


He arrived at the family home where his daughter had been living but it was too late.


"When I reached my daughter's house, I saw her in the last moments of life," he said.


As he leaned toward her to listen to her final words, he said he heard his daughter say, “Thank you, father, for choosing a husband like this for me."


Najibullah Amiri and Nematullah Tanin are freelance reporters in Kabul.