Afghan activists concerned about rise in child marriages | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 02.08.2016
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Afghan activists concerned about rise in child marriages

Afghans have been shocked by footage of a 60-year-old man encountering his six-year-old wife. Though illegal, child marriage remains prevalent in the country, with activists calling for basic justice to be applied.

A disturbing video has circulated on social media in Afghanistan of a six-year-old girl crying as she encounters the man to whom she is married - an elderly Afghan cleric Mohammad Karim, believed to be around 60-years-old. Her father is also present, but she seems terrified of him too. She tries to hide behind the women who have been taking care of her since she was rescued from Karim.

The girl's family had earlier claimed that Karim abducted the child and held her for a month before marrying her. But recent reports indicate that the girl's father had exchanged his daughter for a goat and a small amount of money. Karim and the father are now being held by police in the central province of Ghor on charges of child abuse, while the girl is being kept at a safe house for victims of child abuse.

On the rise

Reports show that child marriage is pervasive in many rural areas of Afghanistan. A 2012 study by the United Nations Population Fund revealed that Afghanistan was among the 41 countries in which 30 percent or more of the women aged 20 to 24 were reported to be married by the age of 18. A study by the Afghan Ministry of Public Heath also showed that over half of all women in the 25-49 age group were married by the age of 18, with 21 percent married by the age of 15.

The legal age for marriage in Afghanistan is either 15 or 16 years for girls and 18 years for men. But extreme poverty, strong patriarchal values and poor access to education have led to the prevalence of marriages before that age, experts say. Other cultural practices such as bride price, child engagement and exchange marriage are also contributing factors.

The Afghan government committed in 2009 to ending the practice in five years, but Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) say cases of child marriages have only increased since then.

"We do not have exact numbers yet, but our records show a boost in the number of child marriages in recent years," AIHRC commissioner Qudria Yazdanparast told DW. She added that many cases of child marriages continue to be justified by clerics, such as Karim. "But these people know nothing about religion and Islam," she said.

Her organization is working with the Afghan government's Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs to set up offices in all Afghan provinces that will issue a fatwa on issues like this.

Lack of justice

According to Afghan criminal law, Karim could face a minimum of two years in jail, if convicted. Activists are calling for more severe prison sentences in such cases.

"At this point, we are not happy with how the government deals with cases of child marriages," Yazdanparast said. Most importantly, she stressed, the government simply needs to enforce the law with those who marry children.

This can be a difficult task for the government, however, because in many cases the family has given its consent and chooses not to report the marriage. Afghans do not have to register their marriages with the government or any other organization, which officials say renders it very difficult for the government to keep track of such cases.

Yazdanparast also believes that educating people about women's rights is fundamental to bringing an end to the practice. "Once people have a better understanding of their culture and region, a big part of the problem will be solved, and they will understand that nothing can justify such incidents," she said.

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