It is estimated that every year, 15 million girls are married before the age of 18, and as a result are denied many basic human rights such as healthcare, education, and the freedom to choose their own futures. More than 30% of women today were married before their 18th birthday, and if there is no reduction in the amount of child marriages, an estimated 1.2 billion girls will be married by 2050.
There are many recurring cultural, religious and socio-economic factors that perpetuate child marriage in different countries, but the truth of the matter is that it has been outlawed by international law. The right to ‘free and full’ consent to a marriage is recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) prohibits child marriage. Although many governments abide by these laws on paper, the practice still pervasively continues unhindered and unregulated in some areas.
Afghanistan is a country where child marriage is common. There are over 50% of Afghan teens who are either engaged or married by the time they reach the age of 12. Approximately 60% of teens are wed at the age of 16. About 80% of these happen in rural areas and are sometimes forced, bartered or arranged. Many of the suitors are older men, some even in their sixties.
The area lacks security because of 30 years of war and there is always a risk of rape and kidnapping. Therefore, families are prompted to wed their young daughters as a result. Some of these young ladies are swapped to repay a debt or bring resolution to a dispute in hope of settling. Poverty is also a reason why parents are compelled to give away their daughters to older men in matrimony. The cost to care for them may be too much. Wealthier men take the daughters and pay a large price to the parents.
After the Taliban rule in Afghanistan ended and President Hamid Karzai was elected, he signed a law in 2009 which purportedly allowed greater human rights and protections for women, but left some gaping loopholes for certain religious groups to legislate marriage within their own communities and families. As such, many human rights advocacy groups were calling for even more reforms to the law in order for child marriages and other atrocities against women can be prevented.
While the law is being heavily scrutinized, there are everyday Afghani women taking a stand despite heavy opposition and threats. One of those women is 18 year old Sonita Alizadeh, who managed to escape becoming a child bride at 14, and today uses her voice to shed light on this epidemic that damages young girls’ lives.
She moved to Iran at the age of 8 with her family due to the war in Afghanistan and grew up in Tehran. But her family’s cultural traditions remained firm. As she grew up she became involved in local organizations that helped undocumented Afghani kids, learned karate, and starting singing and rapping.
“One day my mom told me, ‘You have to return to Afghanistan with me. There’s a man there who wants to marry you. Your brother’s engaged and we need your dowry money to pay for his wedding’,” she told PRI.
She was crushed to hear that her life of freedom and creativity was about to be cut short. So she wrote a song and filmed a video with the help of an Iranian director she befriended to accompany it, called ‘Brides for Sale’. In it she wears a wedding dress and veil, has visible bruising and cuts on her face, and also sports a barcode on her forehead symbolizing the “transaction” of many girls in marriage in Afghanistan.
“Let me whisper, so no one hears that I speak of selling girls. My voice shouldn’t be heard since it’s against Sharia. Women must remain silent… this is our tradition,” the song begins. Set to a thumping beat and her shrill adamant voice, it’s hard not to be drawn into Sonita’s emotional narrative of wanting to escape the boundaries of this cultural tradition.
The idea that a girl is simply a commodity, a business transaction or a means to a financial end for more important matters is heartbreaking. Her mother wanted a suitor to pay US$9,000 for Sonita so that she could afford to pay US$7,000 for her son’s wedding.
Surprisingly, after her parents saw the video they were moved and told Sonita she didn’t have to get married.
“It means so much to me that my family went against our tradition for me. Now I’m somewhere that I never imagined I could be,” she said.
Her video got the attention of a number of advocate groups around the world from Afghanistan to Indonesia, and eventually landed in the hands of an arts academy in Utah, where she was given a full scholarship to attend. Based in the US, Sonita travels around sharing her music and her journey.
She has come a long way from that place in life where she feared the fate that many many girls cannot escape: underage marriage.
“I sometimes I think about the fact that I could have been a mother right now — with a few kids. It’s not a thought I like,” she said.
But because of her unique circumstance, she is adamant about using her musical platform to send a powerful message about this issue. It’s her way of expressing her sadness, anger and emotion for the women of her own country, despite living thousands of miles away right now.
“Rap music let’s you tell your story to other people. Rap music is a platform to share the words that are in my heart.”
Her journey has become the subject of a documentary called ‘Sonita is a Traveling Swallow‘ made by Iranian filmmaker Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami.
Sonita’s circumstance in the US is something many young women around the world can only dream of. Despite the many statistics and facts about the dangers of child marriage, this horrible tradition continues to happen. We hope as more collective voices and advocacy groups use their platforms to speak, sing, shout, dance, and write to governments and legislators, that changes in tradition and culture will happen.
Let Sonita’s brave story be a reminder that often change comes through difficult situations and decisions.