Saturday, November 27, 2010

Afghanistan: Runaways Fleeing Forced Marriages

This article originally appeared in the Institute for War and Peace Reporting,

Women often jailed for trying to escape coercive arranged matches.

In Afghanistan, where most women do not get to choose their own husbands, 18-year-old Zaiba felt she had little choice but to run away from home when she fell in love.

When Zaiba and her cousin announced they wanted to get married, her father opposed the match and demanded payment of an impossibly high bride-price, 15,000 US dollars.

“My father wanted to marry me off – for the same amount of money – to my uncle’s son, who is 40 and already has a wife and kids. Actually, he wanted to sell me,” she said. “My cousin and I decided to run away and solve the problem through the judicial institutions.”

Zaiba found refuge in a refuge for women in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif, where she has been for the last two months.

Her father Nuruddin, 80, was invited to the safe house to see whether he and his daughter could come to some agreement. He staunchly denies blocking Zaiba’s wish to marry her cousin.

“If this guy had come along with four elders and asked for my daughter’s hand in marriage, why wouldn’t I have let her marry him?” he said, accusing the cousin of tricking Zaiba into running away from home. “Now he has sullied my name, so there is no way I will let my daughter marry him.”

Zaiba is relatively lucky. Not only is her family willing to accept mediation in order to bring her home, but she found a safe place to flee to.

Under Afghan law, women and girls who run away from home can be put in prison for up to a year, and the shame associated with such cases means their families sometimes refuse to take them back.

Hamid Safowat heads the Afghanistan Assistance group, which helps run the Mazar-e Sharif shelter, which currently houses 31 women and girls. He said that since the refuge was established in 2006, his organisation had dealt with more than 1,400 runaway cases in the northern provinces of Baghlan, Samangan, Balkh, Jowzjan, Sar-i Pol and Faryab.

In most cases, the dispute was resolved through mediation, although this could take weeks or even months.

In conservative Afghan society, many decisions about a woman’s future are taken by male family members. Observers say customary law takes precedence over Islamic law, which gives women the right to choose their own husband and forbids forced marriage.

Qazi Sayed Mohammad Samay, who heads the northern branch of Afghanistan’s Human Rights Commission, says the number of girls running away from home has risen in recent years.

Samia, 16, from the Shulgard district of Balkh province, is among those seeking the commission’s help. She wants it to intervene and help break her engagement to a man 22 years older than her. Her family concluded the arrangement when she was only six, and is now insisting the marriage go ahead.

“I don’t want to marry someone who’s many times my age, so I have come to this [human rights commission] office to get the engagement terminated,” she said.

Fawzia Nawabi, head of the women’s department at the national Human Rights Commission, said that on a recent tour of women’s prisons, she met 15 girls imprisoned for running away from home in Balkh province, 22 in Jowzjan, eight in Sar-i Pol province and four in Samangan.

“All of them said they had been married off against their will,” she said. “Some of them had run away because they were beaten for no reason, and others because they had been given away as ‘baad’.”

“Baad” is an Afghan custom where girls are given in marriage in exchange for debts owed to the other family, or as compensation for a death.

Samay agreed “baad” was one of the factors driving women to flee their homes, along with poverty and low levels of literacy.

But he also said new phenomena like foreign soap operas and mobile phones were giving girls unrealistic expectations and reducing the influence of the family. He called for an end to such “intrusions of foreign culture”.

Malalay Roshandil Osmani, head of the Balkh Association for the Defence of Women’s Rights, disagreed strongly, arguing instead that the boom in print media, radio and television since the collapse of the Taleban regime in 2001 had helped make young women more conscious of their rights.

“Awareness of their rights has fostered a new spirit of daring among women, leading them to run away from home,” she said.

Bahman Boman is an IWPR-trained journalist in northern Afghanistan.