Shut out of education, “idle” Afghan girls are being married off

Shut out of education, “idle” Afghan girls are being married off


13-year-old Zainab was supposed to have bought a new school uniform this fall, but with no prospect of girls’ schools reopening in Afghanistan, she was forced to choose a wedding dress instead.

Since the Taliban seized power in Kabul and denied education to teenage girls, many have been married – often to much older men of their father’s choice.

“I cried a lot and kept telling my father that the Taliban would reopen girls’ schools,” Zainab said.

“But he said that’s not going to happen and it’s better that I get married than sit idle at home.”

Their wedding date was set within hours of the groom-to-be’s arrival with an offering of a few sheep, goats and four sacks of rice as a bride price – a centuries-old custom for many in rural Afghanistan.

As is tradition, Zainab moved in with her new in-laws and her husband – who is 17 years her senior.

“No one asked my opinion,” she said.

Afghanistan is the only country in the world where girls are not allowed to attend secondary school.

Coupled with the economic crisis and ingrained patriarchal values, many parents have rushed marriages for teenage daughters who have been largely tied to their homes since the Taliban halted their education.

“I used to wake up late at my parents’ house… everyone scolds me here,” Zainab told AFP from the Taliban power base in Kandahar.

“They say, ‘We’ve spent so much on you and you don’t know how to do anything’.”

Parents increasingly feel girls have no future in Afghanistan, said Mohammad Mashal, head of a teachers’ association in the western city of Herat.

“They think it’s better if girls get married and start a new life,” he said.

When the Taliban retook control of the country last August, there was brief hope that they would give women more freedoms than their brutal, harsh rule of the 1990s.

But a plan by the Ministry of Education to reopen girls’ schools in March was scrapped by the mysterious Supreme Leader Hibatullah Akhundzada.

Officials claim the ban is temporary but have come up with a litany of excuses for the closures.

For many girls it is already too late.

– ‘Now I wash dishes’ –

A team of AFP journalists has interviewed several girls who have either gotten married or engaged in recent months.

Their real names are being kept secret for their security.

“I never thought that I would have to drop out of college and become a housewife instead,” says 16-year-old Maryam.

“My parents have always supported me, but in this situation not even my mother could be against my marriage.”

She studied in a village until sixth grade, after which her father moved the family to the nearby town of Charikar, north of Kabul, where his children could pursue higher education.

“Instead of studying, I now wash dishes, do laundry and wipe the floor. All of this is so hard,” she said as she served breakfast to her father, Abdul Qadir, 45.

Qadir had planned to have Maryam and her sisters study for degrees before looking for suitors.

“I wanted them to graduate from university because I’ve worked hard for it and I’ve already spent so much money on it,” he told AFP.

Qadir lives in a rented apartment and had to sell some household items to support his family.

“In Afghanistan, girls don’t get many opportunities and marriage proposals stop coming after a while,” he said.

“My previous experience with the Taliban tells me that they will not reverse their decision.”

Even if there were a policy reversal, it would mean nothing to Maryam.

“The first person to oppose my education will be my husband. He will be physically violent towards me,” she told AFP.

Early marriage can often lead to lifelong suffering for girls and women.

Such marriages are particularly common in rural areas of Afghanistan, where the dowries given to the brides’ families are an important source of income.

Experts say education is crucial to delaying girls’ marriages and thus child births, which are associated with higher rates of infant and maternal mortality at a young age.

– A girl is a ‘burden’ –

The Taliban have imposed severe restrictions on women, forcing them to adhere to the group’s strict vision of Islam.

Women have been told to cover themselves in hijab, or preferably an all-encompassing burqa, in public, or, better still, to leave the house only when absolutely necessary.

Afghanistan’s aid-dependent economy has collapsed since the withdrawal of foreign forces, leaving hundreds of thousands out of work and half of its 38 million people at risk of starvation, aid organizations say.

In a distorted sense of sacrifice, some young women offer themselves in marriage to ease the financial burden.

“(My father) didn’t force me, but the situation was that I accepted a proposal and got engaged,” said 15-year-old Sumayya in the capital Kabul.

Sisters Sara, 20, and Fatima, 19, were months away from taking their university entrance exams when their high school closed, preventing them from graduating.

With the family in crisis following the death of their father from Covid-19, they declared one by one that the husband search should begin.

“My conscience tells me that it is better to get married than to be a burden to my family,” Fatima said.

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