At just ten years old, Raihana Mirzai is already engaged to be married to a man double her age. Unsurmountable debt has led her family to see this arrangement as their only viable way to survive.
One year on from the Taliban taking control in Afghanistan, she is one of the many Afghan girls who are being turned into brides as a means for their families to get through the worsening financial crisis.
Your debt for your daughter
Engaged at ten—this is not the life that Shaima had dreamt of for her daughter, Raihana. And yet, she feels it is the family’s only option since her son’s accident. A year earlier, Mansor was seriously injured when collecting trash to earn money for his family. He fell from the side of the truck and was hit by a motorcycle. The medical costs associated with his recovery have left the family deep in debt.
Relatives came to their aid, paying off $1,100 of the medical bills. But that money was given as a loan, and now that Raihana’s family cannot repay the loan, the relatives have asked for her to be married to her cousin as an alternative form of repayment. The groom’s family will discount the debt from the dowry of $6,000 they will pay Raihana’s family. Shaima hopes they will find the money to repay the loan in time to cancel the engagement.
“I like solving problems, so I want to become a doctor,” Raihana told Al Jazeera. But she knows this dream is unlikely to ever come true. Once she is married, she’ll be expected to focus on her home and family. Education and work beyond the household won’t be on the cards. “It’s not important if I’m happy or not. This is my family’s decision, and I want to help my brother,” she says.
Poverty as a driver
Child marriage is not uncommon in Afghanistan, particularly for girls. But since the Taliban takeover last year, the risk of young girls being promised as brides has risen.
The rise is mostly due to increasing financial desperation. Currently, only 5% of families having enough to eat, forcing many to take extremely difficult decisions around the futures of their children – UNICEF has reported cases of children as young as 20 days being promised for marriage.
“Many are making desperate decisions to survive, including selling their children – specifically young daughters – into marriage or arranging their marriages in order to receive a dowry or mahr. The dowry, paid by the groom to the bride’s family, is a traditional practice in all marriages in Afghanistan, but more families are now seeking this to help them survive difficult financial times.”
The Taliban’s influence
As well as abject poverty, women and girls in Afghanistan are facing ever-tightening restrictions under the Taliban, curtailing their right to work, to move, to study, and more. Since last year, girls have not been allowed to attend school beyond sixth grade, which makes them more vulnerable to early engagement, according to UNICEF.
The Taliban’s stance on child marriage suggests change for Afghan girls will not come from this regime. Although the government issued a ban on forced marriage in December, Sadiq Akif, the spokesperson for the Ministry of Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, said earlier this year: “when a girl reaches puberty, she can be given to marriage.”
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