At the start of these 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence, we are painfully aware that in times of war and conflict, of climate crisis and economic distress, the girls of the world bear the greatest burden.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the lives of Afghan girls. Each day we witness the ongoing assault on their human rights and a brutal campaign of physical and mental violence. The dreams of a generation who never knew such oppression shattered as secondary schools remain closed to girls, and female leaders are forced to flee their country in fear for their lives.
Devastating recent media reports share the plight of too many Afghan girls sold into marriages to men decades their senior – Magul, 10; Zohra, 7; Noqra, 8; Saliha, 7; Benazir, 8; Parwana, 9 (with her 2-year-old sister also at risk); and countless more. Sobbing, Magul pleaded with a CNN reporter, “If they make me go, I will kill myself. I don’t want to leave my parents.”
This recent explosion of prepubescent girls sold into a lifetime of servitude through child marriage is a warning sign and a moral test: will the global community stand with Afghan girls? Or will we be complicit, allowing suffering to be their new standard of living?
Afghan girls are not alone in their plight. In fact, tens of thousands of girls are married off each day – one every two seconds. Forced marriage not only robs girls of their childhoods, but also their futures. They are deprived of their bodily autonomy, their families, and their opportunity to dream, study and choose their futures. Many die in childbirth – children themselves, lacking the physical maturity to deliver babies. The de facto authority’s school closures and the deepening crisis of poverty and hunger – made worse by an ongoing COVID pandemic, drought and the arrival of Afghanistan’s harsh winter – are conditions ripe for child marriage. Starving families are forced to make unimaginable decisions with the girl’s value calculated by her dowry.
The likelihood that massive numbers of girls will be sold into marriage is unlike anything we have seen before. Magnified by patriarchy, the repercussions of war and climate change once again fall on the tiniest shoulders.
Beyond a human rights issue, girls’ safety is a matter of national security and our collective future. But the world’s girls not only bear the greatest burden; they hold the greatest potential to change things for the better. Ending child marriage helps to foster greater economic security, healthier populations, fewer violent conflicts, and more environmentally-sound policies.
We, the undersigned, call for an end to the practice of child marriage. We hold Afghanistan’s de facto authority accountable for its treatment of women and girls. We demand all girls be allowed to attend school, and all families have access to food aid.
We demand an end to gender apartheid in Afghanistan.