Last year was Arezu’s final year in high school in Faryab province in northern Afghanistan. In the summer, she was contemplating her future career choices. She was thinking between becoming a teacher, a lawyer, or a politician who would eventually run for parliament.
Her dreams were destroyed when the Taliban took over and banned girls from secondary schools, she says. Then her family of 13 fell into poverty when her father’s shop lost customers and was forced to close. As the family’s eldest child, she is being forced to marry a man she had never seen before the engagement party.
“Seven months ago, my family engaged me to a man against my will. It happened because my father is poor and the Taliban are here,” 19-year-old Arezu told Zan Times in a WhatsApp message. “When I think about this marriage, I feel I am turned into a walking corpse and I feel I don’t have any value or worth to my family,” she added.
Arezu’s future husband, who is against girls’ education, offered 300,000 afghani (US$3,350) as dowry, an amount that can feed the family for months.
Poverty has always played a factor in the amount of child and forced marriage in Afghanistan. Even before the Taliban took over, an estimated 60 to 80 percent of all marriages were forced or involved girls under 16, according to the now-defunct Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.
Now, a combination of drought, pandemic, and economic sanctions imposed after the Taliban took over has created the country’s worst humanitarian crisis, with nearly 20 million people facing “acute hunger,” according to a recent United Nations analysis. It has created the “perfect storm” for child and forced marriage in the country.
“The Taliban ban on girls’ secondary school coinciding with Afghanistan’s desperate humanitarian crisis is the worst possible combination, and it’s tragically predictable that girls would be paying the price,” said Heather Barr, the associate women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch. She warns that “the situation in Afghanistan right now is absolutely a perfect storm for child and forced marriage.”
According to Barr, the two most significant risk factors for child marriage are families struggling to eat and girls not having access to education.
Finding of a new Amnesty International’s research on the lives of women and girls under the Taliban, also shows a surge in the rate of child, early and forced marriage under Taliban rule. “This increase is due to several interrelated drivers, many of which are attributable to the actions and policies of the Taliban and its members since they seized control,” according to the research released in July.
Beside the economic and humanitarian crisis and lack of educational and work opportunities for women and girls, the research highlighted families fear of the Taliban and their need to protect their daughters as another common driver of rise in forced, child and early marriage.
Educators and researchers in Afghanistan also echo the concern. A researcher in the western city of Herat says there has been a rise in child and forced marriages since the Taliban’s takeover and closure of schools.
“The school closures prepared the environment for the increase in child marriages,” Manizha Bahra, a cultural researcher in Herat, said in a phone interview. “It gives the poor families a reason to exchange their daughters for their financial needs.”
One girl’s school principal in Herat city, who spoke on condition of anonymity, cited an example to demonstrate the upward trend: Of 40 students in a grade 9 class from last year, 36 have been forced into marriage.
UNICEF also raised the issue in November, three months after the Taliban took over. “The extremely dire economic situation in Afghanistan is pushing more families deeper into poverty and forcing them to make desperate choices, such as putting children to work and marrying girls off at a young age,” Henrietta Fore, then-executive director of UNICEF said in a statement.
Ironically, forced marriage is banned under the Taliban. In the first women’s right decree issued in December, the Taliban leader banned the practice, stating that women should not be considered “property” and must consent to marriage. However, there was no mention of how the decree would be implemented or any indication of a will to enforce it.
Making the situation worse, the Taliban dismantled the support system and shelters for survivors of gender-based violence that had been created over the past two decades with aid money and released many convicted of gender-based violence, according to an Amnesty International report in December.
Now, many girls, already suffering from school closures and the Taliban’s continued clampdown on their rights and freedoms, see no escape and say they are thinking of committing suicide. Mona in Samangan province contemplates suicide after being forced to accept a man she had never met before their engagement party.
“I am under such immense mental pressure that I can’t even sleep. I am constantly up, thinking about ways to free myself. I am thinking, ‘Should I commit suicide by burning myself, hanging, or taking pills?’” Mona, 22, wrote in a text message. “I know, I am going crazy.”
Arezu, too, shares that sentiment: “Sometimes I think I have to either commit suicide or run away.”