Afghanistan: Running away from home
_From Jeremie Bron, Information and Communication Officer for the Terre des hommes Child Rights Consortium
“My father is dead and my uncle wanted to marry me by force to one guy but I don’t like that guy: so, I ran away from my home and contacted another boy. He took me to Jalalabad city and we spent one night in a hotel here. We wanted to go to Kabul but near Kabul bus station the police arrested us. They sent me to the Juvenile attorney and the boy to the adult prison. Now I am in the Afghan prison for children (Juvenile Rehabilitation Center) and the boy is in custody.” (16-years-old girl)
In Afghanistan, child marriage is a common phenomenon. Although the legal age for marriage is 18 years for boys and 16 for girls, some families wed their children – especially daughters – well before. According to an old custom – the Badh -, young girls can even sometimes be exchanged as compensation for offenses committed by male family members. In general, girls who are victims of forced marriage or Badh accept their fate and spend their whole life with a man they don’t love, supporting if necessary sexual violence, beatings and brutality with resignation. A few of them however refuse such a bitter destiny, and run away from home to escape it. What awaits them then is hardly better: traditionally, running away is considered as an offense. The fact that this offense is not part of Afghan penal code does not prevent girls who runaway to be punished by their communities.
Girls and women are discriminated against at every level of society. Outside the protection of a husband or male relative they do not enjoy full freedom. At judicial level they are very seldom considered as equal to men or independent persons. When leaving their home, they voluntarily reject their husband and jump into the unknown. Their relatives ostracize them because their act attracts unacceptable shame on the whole family. Consequently, the only place left for them to go is often at a boyfriend’s, which results in further accusations of fornication or adultery and brings them into jail. If these sins are forgivable for men, girls will bear their mark forever, whether the accusations turn out to be valid or not.
Afghan strong culture of pride and shame is at the root of the problem; running away from home is a social taboo in Afghanistan, where girls are concerned. Girls feel ashamed of what they have done; ashamed parents would prefer to see their daughters die rather than go to prison or be suspected of fornication. Once the sentence is over, some girls have to remain in JRC because no male relative is willing to take them in to their care. They may also have to stay just to be protected from their family. A few shelters (around 14 in the whole country) are currently run by NGOs to accommodate girls who have run away and keep them away from harmful traditional or arbitrary justice. However, the government does nothing to address the issue at its roots and protect girls from consequences of early marriage.
Interview – Fabrice Crégut, Juvenile Justice coordinator for the CRC, expends further on this question.
How many girls who have run away from home are currently in detention? Is it a widespread problem?
Fabrice Crégut: One should make the difference between “running away from home” and other accompanying offences. A recent opinion from the Afghan Supreme Court recalls that in the Afghan criminal law, “running away from home” is not considered as an offence per se and thus no one should be prosecuted only for leaving its household without any consent. However, the crimes of “adultery” or “fornication” (gathered under the single terminology of “zena” in Dari) are “moral” criminal offences which can lead to imprisonment for ‘perpetrators’.
There is a misuse of the words “running away from home” as an offence, coming from some traditional principles that state that it is a wrong behaviour for a girl to leave her house without the consent of her family. In the past, many girls have been illegally detained in Afghanistan, only because they had run away from home. It should not be the case anymore if one applies the positive Afghan Law; unfortunately, there are still cases in remote places.
To answer the question, compared to the total number of children in Afghanistan (around 12 million), the number of girls in detention for the said “moral crimes” is relatively low. Less than 100 girls are detained for a crime linked to running away from home offence, i.e. most of the time adultery or fornication are the key reasons for arrest, in the country. However, moral crimes constitute the cause of imprisonment for a huge majority of girls.
The problem is not about the number of those girls detained for moral crimes, but rather the negative impact of imprisonment for the children affected. When a 16-year old child is sentenced to imprisonment – sometimes despite the fact that she is pregnant or already with a baby – she misses some of the most important years in her life development. Not only will she miss school and the critical education stages that will allow her to find a job and a role in the society, but also, she will continuously bear the stigma of her “fault” and will be rejected by her husband, her family and the rest of the community. It will thus become very difficult for her to find a job, a husband and – if she has any – to raise her children. She is starting her life with a huge handicap.
If running away from home is not an offence, how can these underage girls end up in custody?
Fabrice Crégut: As we have seen before there are at least two reasons for girls to end up in custody for a moral crime. The first one is the offence of fornication; it is prohibited by the Afghan Law. The second one is adultery, when one married person has an affair with another one outside the institution of the marriage.
The problem arises when the parents marry one of their children off to an older person or simply to someone that the child does not appreciate. It can happen for a wide range of reasons: in some cases, the parents receive a reward in exchange for offering the bride (in cash or in kind). Once in the family of this older man, the girl realizes what she can expect for the rest of her life; then she decides to leave her new household and to find refuge with someone else, most of the time a younger man. Girls will rarely go back to their own family where the problems began originally. If the girl has sexual intercourse with this person with who they have sought refuge, then it is a case of adultery and the husband (or the spouse) can legally prosecute the child.
The situation of the girl thus becomes very sensitive as both her family and the family of her husband will carry anger against her. Her life can even be at risk. Sometimes, prosecutors and judges send children to juvenile detention centres “for their own safety”, which is clearly against the principle of legality of punishment, recognized nationally and internationally.
Is marriage under 18 legal in Afghanistan?
Fabrice Crégut: The principle from the 1977 Civil Code is that the age for marriage for boys is 18 and 16 for girls. There is an exception to this principle, and a father can marry his daughter as early as 15 years old. In some places unfortunately, people continue to follow the provisions of the previous marriage law of 1971 that which states that groom and bride can get married as soon as they are “nubile”.
It is very common in Afghanistan that parents choose the future partner of their child. It is considered that around 54% of the children in Afghanistan are married before they are 18. The tradition is deeply rooted in Afghan culture. The main reason is that that the older the child is, the less likely he is to find a partner, so parents want to secure the future of their child as early as possible. It has to be made clear that marriage of young people by their parents should not be seen as a major issue when the opinion of both children is taken into consideration.
However it can become an issue when the children cannot use their right to contribute to the decision, even if the potential partners are about the same age. The problem is made worse when the parents choose to marry off their child against her will to an older man, who is sometimes already married and may have children. It is common that parents from lower social classes give the hand of their daughters to men with a promising economical situation with the idea that it will improve her education opportunities.
Is there a will at the political level to address this issue? Is there any progress?
Fabrice Crégut: The problem of early marriage and its negative consequences is part of a wider problem regarding the civil law reform in Afghanistan that is not unfamiliar with gender. Some studies have highlighted the fact that the 1977 civil code needed to be revised as it does not match with international human rights standards. The main arguments are that ages deemed acceptable for marriage are not the same for boys and girls; the concept of consent is not clearly defined and lack of consent is not considered as a reason to cancel the union; inequality on rights to terminate the marriage for men and women, obedience of the wife.
It is to be noted that Afghanistan has ratified the 1981 International Convention on elimination of all forms of discrimination against women in 2003. Gender issues are clearly recognised and woven throughout the Afghanistan National Development Strategy. However, one could say that progress is slow in a society for which the concept of gender equity is very recent, and sometimes clashes with cultural practices.
What future awaits these girls? Are there any structures / organizations to reintegrate them?
Fabrice Crégut: Again the future of these girls is already stifled because they are rejected by their families, by their husband, by their community. Most of them do not have the educational background to find a job that will allow them to become independent and raise children. If a divorce has been pronounced, it is going to be very difficult for them to find a new husband to take care of them (except in the cases when they have married the person they have had an affair with). So in practical terms, they face a tremendous challenge.
Today, Terre des hommes and other representatives of the civil society, advocate that moral crimes are decriminalized and that the girls are referred to services, most of the time NGO shelters, where they are protected and where they will be educated and provided with the necessary vocational trainings to find a job, and in turn more options for a promising future.