Najma, 30, was worried that her daughter’s life would end up like her own. “My world was colourless, but I wanted a colourful one for Fatima. She was smart and had the right to finish her studies and choose her future husband. I called upon God and He heard my prayers,” she says.
When Najma was 14 years old she was married off to a 28-year-old man in exchange for US$1,000. She was never allowed to go to school, as her father believed that education was not necessary for girls.
Education is often not an option for many women and girls in Afghanistan. According to government figures, only 26 per cent of Afghanistan’s population is literate, with the rate among women around 12 per cent.
When Najma found herself in a bride’s dress she felt neither love nor hate. “I was neither happy nor sad,” she says. “No girls in our family had gone to school, so I never thought of going to school either.”
After the wedding Najma lived with her husband’s family of 12. Soon enough a large portion of the responsibilities in the family fell on her small frame, from cooking for family members to washing their clothes. She recalls that her husband rarely talked to her. “I did my best to make him happy, but it didn’t work. I cooked him his favorite foods and tried to meet his requirements, but it was useless. I thought he might favour someone else.”
Najma was only 15 when she found out she was pregnant, but even that news didn’t change her husband’s feelings toward her. After her second child, a baby boy, Najma decided not to have more children. The pillars of the family foundation were too weak.
Responsibilities for Najma were relentless, in spite of her efforts to make her husband happy. When it was time to enroll Fatima in school, he, like Najma’s father, would not allow it.
“I cried and threw myself at his legs to convince him to allow Fatima go to school, but he didn’t respond. Then I came up with my own idea.” Najma enrolled Fatima in school secretly without informing her husband until she was in a better position to persuade him. “Fatima was in class two when my husband finally agreed, though I didn’t tell him that I had enrolled her before.”
Najma dedicated herself to her children and accepted life as it was. Being illiterate, she couldn’t help her children with homework. Her role in the family was to cook and wash. She left home only to participate in a wedding party or funeral ceremony, and only then in the company of her mother-in-law.
Understanding the conditions that many Afghan women endure, World Vision Afghanistan stepped in. The World Vision Afghanistan facilitators, through Community Change sessions, advocated for increased women’s participation in social activities and increased efforts to prevent child and forced marriage in Najma’s village in Herat province.
When her neighbours told her about World Vision’s Community Changes sessions, Najma decided to tell her husband about her interest in participating. She also requested that her mother-in-law participate as her husband would not allow her to attend alone. It worked.
“I was so excited. I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “It was my first time participating in such gatherings. I found the world wider than the size of my home and realised my abilities beyond washing and cooking.”
Life was starting to blossom for Najma, but it didn’t take long for another setback to occur. She had only participated in the Community Change sessions for a week when she found out that her husband had decided to marry off Fatima, who was in grade four at the time. “I cursed myself for having such a life. I tried to approach my husband about his decision but as always he was silent and cold.”
According to Fatima, “When I told my father that I wanted to go to school he punished me and tore up my books. He told me, ‘starting tomorrow you will no longer be going to school .’” The next day one of the women in the Community Change session raised the issue of child and forced marriage. It was at that time that Fatima shared her problem with the CC staff and group members.
A woman Community Change facilitator asked a male colleague to invite Najma’s husband to a session. “First my husband didn’t want to go to the sessions,” says Najma, “but when he heard that most of our male neighbours were participating he was curious.”
After participating in 12 Community Change sessions on topics ranging from women’s rights and girls’ education to the dangers of child and forced marriage, Najma’s husband not only changed his mind about Fatima’s marriage but also changed his behaviour toward his wife.
“Yesterday, my husband bought me a blue scarf with red flowers on it,” Najma reports. It was the first time he had ever given her a gift. “I couldn’t be happier than I am. My children are going to school. My husband’s behaviour has changed toward me and I am participating in a social gathering session where I can talk and share my ideas.”
Facts about child and forced marriage
According to Dr. Elyer, project manager for World Vision Afghanistan, “Child marriage exposes girls to early pregnancy, which increases the risk of harmful health consequences for both mother and child. Moreover, girls who marry early are at greater risk of suffering serious childbirth trauma like obstetric fistula,” a condition that can jeopardise a young mother’s standing in the community.
According to a 2010 mortality survey by the Ministry of Public Health, 12 per cent of Afghan girls aged 15-19 have either entered pregnancy or given birth, and 47 per cent of deaths in women aged 20 to 24 were related to pregnancy. The survey also found that one Afghan woman dies every two hours due to complications during pregnancy. The report states that “An estimated 2,000 Afghan women and girls attempt suicide by setting themselves on fire each year, which is linked to domestic violence and early or forced marriages.”
Promoting Women’s Engagement in Civil Society
World Vision Afghanistan empowers women by enhancing their political and civil roles in society. The “Women’s Empowerment” Project is implemented with the financial support of the European Union (EU) and Australian NGO Cooperation Program, in partnership with the Social Development and Advocacy Organisation (SDAO) and Women Activities and Social Service Association (WASSA). The project promotes women’s rights, gender equality and increases women’s participation in civil society.
World Vision’s approach for women’s empowerment mainly focuses on mobilising the community through use of a ‘Community Change’ Model to identify common issues and collectively find solutions at personal, family and community levels. Using the Gender in Islam curriculum first piloted by the UNDP in Herat, WV, in conjunction with the Ministry of Religious Affairs, trains religious leaders to increase their awareness on issues such as gender equity, violence against women, early childhood marriage and human rights – linking these teachings back to core teachings of the Qur’an.
It Takes A World
World Vision Afghanistan has launched World Vision’s global campaign ‘It takes a world to end violence against children’ here in this country. Through this important campaign we aim to address forced and child marriage in order to allow these girls to enjoy their childhood, but also to have the opportunity to go to school to help prepare them for a better future.