KABUL —Fifteen-year-old Freshta has escaped marriage to a man more than twice her age. But she has been cast out of her home and worries that her little sister will be forced into the fate that awaited her.
"I am educated, that is why I could refuse my parents' decision. But my sister is only 13 years old, and they will marry her with that old man," said Freshta with tears in her eyes.
Freshta, almost entirely covered by a blue burka, was interviewed at a secret shelter for women in Kabul, a place she was referred to by police after being beaten by her family and expelled from her home for rebelling against her family's wishes.
Afghani civil law sets the minimum marriage age for females at 16. Moreover forced marriage is forbidden in Islam, which holds that marriage should be entered into with total commitment and full knowledge of what it involves.
Most marriages are forced
In Afghanistan, however, coerced child marriage persists. Although getting reliable data is difficult, the most recent surveys estimate some 46 per cent of Afghani women are married by age 18, 15 per cent of them before age 15. According to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, between 60-80 per cent of all marriages in Afghanistan are forced.
Many factors contribute to persistence of adolescent and child marriage: cultural, social and economic. Some clerics also use certain interpretations of Islamic texts to justify this traditional practice. Forced marriage, often a consequence of desperate poverty, is one of the most pervasive of all discriminatory practices affecting girls and women.
Early pregnancies compound risks
Afghanistan is one of the most dangerous places in the world to get pregnant, and child marriage a contributing factor: Early and frequent sexual relations before girls are physically mature and psychologically ready along with early and frequent pregnancies compound the risks of maternal death or disability (such as obstetric fistula). One in four Afghani women age 20-24 had their first child before age 18.
Child marriage is also a contributor to pervasive violence against women. Both human rights violations are rooted in women's low status.
Despite the deep sadness of leaving her sister behind, Freshta is now trying to gain control over her own life. The price of freedom is high: living under cover, isolated from her social network. However, at the centre, which is managed by HAWCA, a UNFPA Afghanistan implementing partner, she is protected and is continuing her literacy classes.
She also enjoys learning tailoring,a skill that may help her earn a livelihood when she leaves the shelter and attempts to reintegrate herself into society. The path forward is not clear, but at least, for now, she is safe.
Training police to respond appropriately
The establishment of Family Response Units and the training and sensitization programmes for police is part of UNFPA long-term commitment to develop field police officers' skills to prevent and respond to cases of violence against women and girls. UNFPA has also developed a model of coordinated response to gender-based violence focused on the health sector. The project aims to introduce a One Stop Assistance Centre for survivors of gender violence, including forced and child marriages, within health facilities.
Using health services as an entry point is a way to make sure that women can access medical, legal and psychological support without arousing suspicions that could lead to more abuse.
UNFPA supports the Ministry of Public Health in operationalizing this model and is working with the Ministry of Interior to strengthen the police response to cases of gender violence. UNFPA along with other partners supports the Family Response Units and police departments to respond appropriately and sensitively to domestic violence as well as children in trouble. They are also able to deal with women who are accused of so-called 'moral crimes', which can include being a rape survivor, running away from abusive families, or being seen in public with men, as well as adultery.
Fulfilling commitments to end discrimination
Protections for women and girls must be a central component of transition and post-transition security frameworks for Afghanistan, said UNFPA Representative Dr. Laurent Zessler.
"The protection for women during and after the transition requires the Afghan National Police to be fully resourced, trained, equipped and sensitized to address effectively cases of violence against women and girls under the Afghan Constitution and other legal frameworks," he said, adding, "UNFPA stands behind the government of Afghanistan in full implementation of its human rights commitments."
Afghanistan has ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women in March 2003 and supports various other human rights instruments, he noted.
But in spite of these commitments, coerced early marriage is still very much a reality in the country, even as UNFPA and its partners support efforts to make sure that the potential of girls like Freshta is fulfilled.
Gaia Chiti Strigelli