Afghan Teens Speak Out Against Early Marriage - World Population Day: A personal story

11 July 2003
Author: UNFPA

KABUL—“If my parents tried to force me to marry, I would refuse,” declared Zohal, 16, as her fellow students nodded in agreement. The Afghan teenagers had just heard government leaders say that early marriage closes girls’ educational prospects and threatens their health, in a forum marking World Population Day.

Such outspokenness is rare in a country where conservative traditions hold firm, daughters bring a dowry and early pregnancy contributes to soaring rates of maternal mortality.

Zohal  Photo: William A. Ryan/UNFPA

Zohal and her classmates belong to a small group of Afghan girls who attend secondary school. While girls’ schools were closed for five years by the former Taliban regime, she was studying in Pakistan. Her family returned to Afghanistan last year.

The female students from Al Fatah High School were in the audience as senior officials and a representative of UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, spoke on this year’s World Population Day theme, the needs of over 1 billion adolescents worldwide for information and services to ensure their reproductive health and rights.

Speakers included Dr. Ferozuddin Feroz, Deputy Minister of Health; Dr. Thoraya Sobhrang, Deputy Minister of Women’s Affairs; Zohal Zareh, General Director of the Literacy Department, Ministry of Education; and Maria Pia Dradi, UNFPA Chief of Operations in Afghanistan. All emphasized the importance of educating girls, protecting their health and delaying marriage and childbirth.

Five Al Fatah students then sang “We Shall Overcome”, the United States civil rights anthem that has inspired freedom movements worldwide.

Afterwards, some of the girls spoke about their hopes for themselves and their country. Zohal wants to go to university and study economics. She wishes all Afghan girls could attend school. “Girls have to finish their studies; they have to be literate. Girls have human rights,” she said.

“Our country has many problems after 20 years of war,” Zohal added. “We need good doctors to help our people. We need schools; in many villages, there are no schools. People have to be literate to develop Afghanistan.”

Muzhgan, 16, wants to stay in school so she can become a doctor and someday open a hospital to help the poor. “Young people must be able to finish education before they marry; 25 is a good age to get married,” she said. “Parents must not pressure their children.” Like Zohal, Muzhgan said she would not accept an early forced marriage, but also noted that her parents were committed to letting her finish her education.

Most Afghan women start childbearing early and have many children, a dangerous situation given the country’s appalling lack of health services. “The right size for a family is two children, one boy and one girl,” Muzhgan opined. Another classmate suggested that two boys and two girls were ideal. “In my opinion,” Zohal said, “parents need only one child, a girl, like my family has.”

Contact Information:

William A. Ryan
Temp. Phone : + 81 (0) 901 620 8365

Omar Gharzeddine
New York
Tel.: +1 (212) 297-5028

Micol Zarb
New York
Tel.: +1 212 297 5042

Population : 38.9 mil
Fertility rate
Maternal Mortality Ratio
Contraceptives prevalence rate
Population aged 10-24
Youth secondary school enrollment
Boys 63%
Girls 37%

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