Andrew Bushell

Entering the Kacha Ghari Afghan refugee camp, filled as it is with mud buildings reinforced by straw and dung baked to a brown-pink terra-cotta by the harsh Central Asian sunlight, is like walking into the 14th century. Turbaned shopkeepers hawk wares from pushcarts and lean-tos, meat crawling with flies hangs in the entrance to the butcher’s shop, and raw human waste streams down narrow streets between the waddle and daub houses. Want hangs heavy in dry, dusty air.

It is therefore not surprising that Kacha Ghari children love school. The girls’ primary school of about 150 students, run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, forms a sort of oasis. Classrooms, though spare, are made of cement and brick. Floors are stone rather than dirt. If only for a few hours a day, laundry, cooking and husbands seem far away for this second grade class.

Husbands?

According to Mrs. Habiba, the second grade teacher, and Mrs. Q’rmrun, the principal, over two-thirds of the nine-year-old girls sitting on the stone floor in a classroom an hour from Tora Bora were either already married or soon to become wives. Almost all of the older children were married, and only about one-third of the children who attended school in second grade continued to sixth grade. Social convention, rather than lack of opportunity, is the real bar to education for female Afghan refugee children.

Child marriage in Afghanistan and Pakistan is a traditional way of arranging marriages that is centuries old. Two children are married and then sent back to live with their parents until puberty. Girls would often live with their mothers-in-law until they started to menstruate, and the men they married would not only be well known to the family; they would often be the same age as the girls. But a combination of war, privation and disassociation over the past 25 years has eroded social norms of Afghan refugees.

Salima, a 10-year-old girl in second grade, will be marrying a 60-year-old man in five months. She says she will be happy to marry Iqbal. When asked why, Salima said: Iqbal’s children already have wives to help them and Iqbal says the only thing I will have to do is cook and wash for him and keep him warm at night. It will be better than taking care of my four older brothers and my younger brother and sister. She will not return to school.

Since Iqbal is decades older than Salima and clearly not the ideal suitor, he paid Salima’s father 1,500 rupees, or about $25, for the privilege of marrying her. The main reason for Salima’s father’s decision was that he could not afford to pay for a wedding feast, which according to Afghan tradition is to be paid by the father of the bride. Obtaining hard currency is a perennial problem for the refugees, because Pakistani guards at the camp entrances regularly demand bribes to let the refugees go to work and often beat them upon return. The money Iqbal gave Salima’s family will provide clothes and shoes that will make it possible for an older brother to go to work.

According to Unicefthe United Nations Children’s Fundover 54 percent of girls over the age of 15 are married. There are no statistics for rates of marriage of girls between 8 and 15 in Central Asia, but such figures would assuredly be high in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Surveys of five Afghan refugee camps on the Pakistan border of girls aged 8 to 13 indicate rates of marriage that exceed 50 percent, with the largest concentration of marriages occurring between 10 and 11 years.

For both boys and girls, child marriage has profound physical, intellectual, psychological and emotional consequences as well as destroying opportunities for education. Physically, premature pregnancy means higher rates of maternal mortality. In fact, it is the leading cause of death in girls aged 15 to 19 worldwide, and while much of that is due to poor health care, physical immaturity is the key risk for girls under 15. According to Claire O’Kane, a social worker in the office of Save the Children Sweden in Peshawar, Pakistan, child wives are three times as likely to have serious psychological problems as those refugees who marry after age 16.

Abuse of child wives is also common. Though there are no figures for Afghanistan, in Egypt 29 percent of married adolescents have been beaten by their husbands; of those, 41 percent were beaten during pregnancy. A study in Jordan indicated that 26 percent of reported cases of domestic violence were committed against wives under 18.

What happens to children who run away from amorous elders? Afghans have a specific word for this act that translates loosely as honor killingusually invoked to prosecute adultery of a mature spouse by her own family. Though the words regicide, patricide and fratricide all exist in English for the killing of a sovereign, father or brother respectively, no specific words exist for the killing of a wife or daughter by her parents. The closest terms are uxoricide, murder of a wife by her husband, and parricide, the murder of a close relative. If no word exists, neither does redress. Just last year, the male head of a prominent Pakistani family murdered his daughter in a lawyer’s office, only to be acquitted. According to Carol Bellamy, executive director of Unicef, there has been no attempt to examine child marriage as a human rights violation until recently.

And only in recent months has Unicef taken the position that early marriage constitutes a violation of a girl’s human rightsprimarily because it can deprive her of the right to give full and free consent to marry, which is guaranteed under the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. While clearly a violation of human rights, according to Anthony Arend, a legal expert and professor of international law at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, it is not only unclear whether children are protected against marriage at any age, but whether they were intended to be protected.

Though poverty is the driving factor in the abandonment of these norms, selling a daughter into early marriage merely reinforces the refugee’s penury by decreasing the aggregate education in the village. To date, though the United Nations has provided many guidelines, it has created few practical barriers to child wedlock.

But help may come from an unlikely source. Consent of a mother is often necessary for her child to be wed. Many older women earnestly regret early marriages that robbed them of literacy. If they can stand up to their husbands, innocence may yet bloom in the dust of Kacha Ghari.

Andrew Bushell writes for a number of publications, including The Economist.