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Spike in child marriages may be ‘the most disturbing fallout of the Taliban takeover’

November 30, 2021

De Silva de Alwis explains why there has been an increase in marriages of underage girls in Afghanistan and what could be done to improve girls’ lives.

Since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August, child marriages have reportedly been on the rise.

The University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School’s Office of Communications spoke with Rangita de Silva de Alwis, Senior Adjunct Professor of Global Leadership and Associate Dean of International Affairs, about why there has been an increase in marriages of underage girls in Afghanistan and what could be done to improve girls’ lives.

Office of Communications: Is it correct that child marriages have been on the rise in Afghanistan since the Taliban took over in mid-August?

De Silva de Alwis: Yes. But even before the Taliban takeover, 33% of girls in Afghanistan were married before the age of 18, which is the internationally accepted age of majority. This is a crisis that has been ongoing. Ever since the coronavirus pandemic, there has been an increase in child marriages around the world.

What we see now is a definite spike in Afghanistan in child marriages. This is a growing emergency and will probably be the most disturbing fallout of the Taliban takeover.

Office of Communications: What are the causes of this rise? Is it because of the economic collapse that families are so desperate to get money in exchange for promising their young daughters into marriage?

De Silva de Alwis: There is the financial aspect, where girls have become commodities and are used as barter by families in an environment where economic security is at peril. Poverty is a driver of forced marriage.

But child marriage is not just an economic issue. There is a second pillar for this. The impending economic crisis and political conflict have created a fear of violence against girls, and girls are being forced into marriage by their families as a way of protecting a girl and a way of saving a family’s so-called honor.

The uncertain future of girls is a huge cause for early marriages. I would say that trumps the economic reason for marriage.

We need to see the Taliban takeover as a continuum of the war against girls’ education, especially because on September 18, the Taliban issued a decree that ordered only boys to return to secondary schools, but not girls. From Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani activist and most famous victim of the Taliban ban on girls’ education to the girls of Chibok in Nigeria, there is a war being waged against girls’ education as part of a rising wave of extremism.

Women’s education is protection against extremism. Journalist Nicholas Kristof once wrote: “The greatest threat to extremism isn’t drones firing missiles, but girls reading books.”

Shukria Barakzai, the leading Afghan political leader who ran underground schools for girls during the first Taliban rule, asked the United States during President Barack Obama’s administration for 30,000 scholars or engineers instead of that many soldiers.

Access to education, and mandatory education, is often the most powerful vaccine against child marriage.

Office of Communications: Are there reliable data that depict the reported rise in child marriages since the Taliban takeover? And how young are the girls who are promised into marriage?

De Silva de Alwis: UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, has received reports of families in Afghanistan offering daughters as young as 20 days old for future marriage in return for a dowry.

The reports are credible, but it’s difficult to collect the real data in a time of crisis and conflict.

Even before the latest political instability, the United Nations said that from 2018 to 2019, there were 183 child marriages and 10 cases of selling of children in Herat and Baghdis provinces between the ages of six months and 17 years. The pandemic made it worse because of growing poverty.

I would say the qualitative data on girls being given into forced marriages and girls — as in young baby girls — being given in marriage as barter in terms of securing a family’s future is something that we see increasingly in a post-Taliban takeover.

Office of Communications: What can the U.S. do about this?

De Silva de Alwis: I think it is important that we link development cooperation to girls’ education and to a ban on child marriage. Girls’ education must be seen as an important human rights issue, development issue, and a security issue.

In communities where there is a mandatory age of education for girls, families are forced to send their girls to school. An implementation of a strict mandatory age of retention in school is the most important vaccine to prevent child marriage.

I worked with the European Union on tying development cooperation to the ban of child marriage in South Asia. That was very important because you are linking foreign policy and development cooperation to a public good, such as ending child marriage, so raising the age of marriage for girls becomes a prerequisite for development cooperation.

However, that kind of development cooperation cannot be top down. It cannot be driven by U.S. interests. It has to be driven by interests on the ground. So, USAID needs to cooperate with nongovernmental organizations on the ground and with women’s groups both on the ground in Afghanistan as well as those who are now in exile.

Most of all, it is important for multilaterals to take note of attacks on girls’ education and the spike in violence against women, including early marriage, as early warning signs or signifiers of impending crisis. We should be better prepared in the future to address the crisis before it reaches a tipping point.

Also, Afghanistan has ratified both the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The CEDAW in Article 16 calls for a minimum age of marriage and the CRC defines a child as below the age of 18. There is a need to ensure that the United Nations enforces these international conventions and that any negotiations with the Taliban centers on the primacy of accountability under these international conventions.

Security Council Resolution 2493 in 2019 called for UN Member States to promote all the rights of women, including access to education in countries in armed conflict and post-conflict situations.

Further, the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goal No. 5 on gender equality has a target that calls for ending child marriage. This target is gaining currency since it is expected that 10 million additional girls in the world are expected to be at risk for child marriage before the end of the decade due to the pandemic, according to UNICEF. This is on top of the 100 million girls around the world expected to be married as children over the next 10 years.

Moreover, Afghanistan introduced a “National Action Plan to Eliminate Early and Child Marriage” in 2014. The Elimination of Violence Against Women law was passed as a presidential decree in 2009 by then-President Hamid Karzai. It was reauthorized by President Ashraf Ghani in 2018 and criminalizes 22 acts of abuse including forced marriage and prohibiting a woman or girl from going to school. The international community must ensure that this prior progress is not rolled back.

Office of Communications: Cherie Blair, the wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, recently spoke to your “Women, Law, and Leadership” class. Did the two of you speak about Afghanistan?

De Silva de Alwis: Her visit to my class focused on her research on leadership and gender stereotypes in law and business. She is not only a former first lady but a leading international lawyer, a Queen’s Counsel, and was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

As for Afghanistan, when she first went to Kabul in the early 2000’s with then-Prime Minister Tony Blair to meet with then-President Hamid Karzai and Sima Samar, the intrepid Minister of Women’s Affairs, Samar told her: “Please, don’t forget the women of Afghanistan.”

I think that is something that Cherie Blair never forgets. She serves as the chancellor of the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh, which hopes to educate 500 top Afghan women students next year. I will also lead the Cherie Blair Leadership Institute for Afghan Women at AUW (virtual) in July 2022. Supporting Afghan women’s security and education is a top priority for Cherie Blair, as well as for two of her friends, former First Ladies Hillary Rodham Clinton and Laura Bush. 

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