Child marriage in Afghanistan: changing the narrative

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Child marriage in Afghanistan persists at rates that suggest at least one in three young girls will be married before they turn 18. However, it is not a well-researched phenomenon in this context, and gaps in knowledge regarding prevalence, practice and drivers remain.

The primary objective of this report, prepared on behalf of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan’s Ministry for Labour, Social Affairs, Martyrs and the Disabled (MoLSAMD) in collaboration with UNICEF Afghanistan, is to provide contextualised analysis on the knowledge, attitudes and practices of communities in order to inform the development of future programming to either mitigate the impacts of child marriage or prevent further engagement in child marriage across Afghanistan.

To do so, mixed methods research was conducted over five provinces across Afghanistan – Bamyan, Kandahar, Paktia, Ghor and Badghis – in urban, semi-urban and rural sampling locations, and included household surveys, case studies, focus groups and interviews.

Understandings of childhood and the transition to adulthood strongly impact the practice of child marriage, with differing understandings of what makes a person an adult, and what makes a person prepared for marriage. Current national law treats boys and girls differently, with the age of marriage at 16 for girls, and for boys, 18. Defining child marriage according to the international conventions to which Afghanistan is a signatory (marriage of a person under the age of 18), the research found rates of child marriage among interviewed households just slightly higher than the most recent survey data collected, and in line with national-level surveys such as the AMICS and the DHS. 42% of households across the 5 surveyed provinces indicated that at least one member of their household had been married before the age of 18.

Despite the recurring narrative of a lack of awareness around child marriage, respondents were often aware of the potential harmful impacts – maternal and infant health challenges, violence against women, difficult marriages, and reduced education and work opportunities, for example.

Many were, however, unaware of the legal and religious frameworks that govern child marriage. Understanding of the ages to marry, for example, skews towards ages under 18, prompting a range of responses from as young as 10 or 12 through to late twenties across all respondents, including many community leaders, professionals and experts.

The research highlights the particular vulnerability of girls to child marriage, supporting existing prevalence statistics with some indications that current data may, in fact, be under-reporting child marriage in young girls. Many young women, and their families, recounted stories of the challenges that result from child marriage, from restricted mobility and unhappy marriages through to violence and attempted suicides. Additionally, it came out that the negative impacts of child marriage do not stop with young girls, but extend to child grooms, and to the families and communities who participate in and perpetuate the practice. Young men and their families are compelled to meet the demands of high bride prices, and husbands who marry young are often ill-equipped to provide for their new family or understand their wives’ needs.

The deeply economic and transactional view of marriage by many provides ongoing impetus to use child marriage as a coping mechanism. Girls in particular are used for domestic labour, and the extreme inequality between genders and strict adherence to gender roles contributes to the devaluing of young girls as individuals and a focus on their economic potential as part of the marriage transaction, and in domestic labour for their husband’s household, rather than as economic agents or individuals.

This research challenged narratives that suggest decision-making on child marriage is unilateral. While decision-making is firmly centred within the family unit, and male household members are likely to have greater or final say, most reported women and other family members being involved in the process. It was common to report that children ought to have a say in their marriage, even if they were not allowed to make the final decision, representing a more collective decision-making process. This research also showed that agency is often restricted not only for child brides, but for other decision-makers. As such, solutions cannot be simply girl-focused, but must also consider household, communities, and the role of government in providing the necessary structures to support change.

This report presents a range of recommendations that draw upon the research findings outlined in later chapters. However, above all, what this report seeks to highlight is that child marriage is a complex phenomenon with a variety of players, most of whom are constrained by a number of significant and challenging contextual drivers. As such, in order to address child marriage effectively, it is necessary to focus on the people involved and how they can be made agents of positive change in relation to child marriage, without unfairly or impractically placing the entirety of the onus for resisting child marriage entirely on young girls, or their families. This will necessarily require addressing critical underlying structural factors; however, doing so in a way that targets only one kind of driver, or focuses only on one element of the household or community that participates in the process, is unlikely to have a lasting impact.

In short, there is a need for complementary, wide-ranging solutions that address not only policy, law, economic challenges, social and cultural norms of gender inequality, harmful traditional practices, and insecurity, but which also work with girls and boys, parents and children, frontline workers and key influencers. This will require coordinated action and further work in continuing to improve understandings of child marriage in the Afghan context. A concerted and coordinated effort that recognises the complexity of the structures that perpetuate child marriage is the only way to effectively reduce the impacts of, and prevent future harms resulting from, child marriage.

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