As of tomorrow, I will have been back from Afghanistan two weeks. I keep thinking back to the sight – as viewed from the window of my heavily armored Land Cruiser – of young girls in their clean school uniforms bravely making their way home across the chaotic traffic that careened along Airport Road. I watched them as if I were seeing across a vast chasm of culture and time, and not only through bullet-proof glass. Who were these girls, and what are their prospects?
Two weeks is a short time, and the images and feelings from Kabul remain vibrant. My strongest Kabul memory is of the almost eerie feeling that came simply from being present in the country that many surveys distinguish as the worst country in the world in which to be a woman. That poignant awareness, overlaid with the sight of those school girls, led me to a bigger picture: the plight of the more than 15 million women of Afghanistan. Two weeks has done little to clarify those perplexing thoughts; I remain confounded and more than a little distressed.
Intellectually I can appreciate, at least at some level, that Afghan women and girls are so subjugated and disempowered and have been for so long that there’s precious little they can do on their own to reverse this deeply inequitable situation. The fact that their plight is now significantly better than it was in the days of the Taliban and the earlier Islamic State of Afghanistan almost doesn’t matter; when you remain so far below the human dignity threshold the incremental gains seem to carry less weight. But even if I make that allowance, I struggle to understand why Afghan men and boys would allow all of this to happen, or at least to continue. Are their relationships with their grandmothers, mothers, wives, sisters, nieces, daughters, and granddaughters really so different than ours that this extraordinary disequilibrium between the sexes is perceived to be acceptable, or in any way desirable?
Let me take a few steps back. “All of this”? “Extraordinary disequilibrium”? Over the past few decades Afghanistan has been thoroughly studied, and the story that emerges – well, that jumps out – from the data is deeply disturbing to me. An estimated 70 percent of marriages in Afghanistan were forced upon the brides. Despite laws on the books forbidding it, more than half of all Afghan brides continue to be younger than the legal marriage age of 16 (or 15 with a guardian’s and a court’s approval – the girl’s approval is irrelevant). And what’s life like for Afghan women after marriage? An Afghan wife has little say in how many children she bears, or when. One Afghan woman dies in childbirth every thirty minutes, leaving that country with the tragic distinction of having the highest maternal mortality rate in the world. Afghan girls are also discouraged, sometimes “terminally”, from seeking an education. Domestic violence is so common that 87 per cent of Afghan women admit to experiencing it (and a significant proportion of that domestic violence is instigated by the mother-in-law). The number of honor killings and sexual assaults has increased in almost every part of the country; based on statistics collected during the past five years an estimated 150 cases of honor killing occur annually.
Even for Afghan women who are not married, the realities are often grim. Afghan rape victims can be forced, by law, to marry their attacker. According to reports from reputable NGOs, hundreds of thousands of Afghan women continue to suffer abuse at the hands of their husbands, fathers, brothers, armed individuals, parallel legal systems, and institutions of state, such as the police and justice systems. No Afghan law specifically prohibits sexual harassment, and while Afghan law does stipulate that workplace discrimination between women and men is not allowed, that prohibition does not include equal pay for equal work. And of course the March 2015 mob execution of Farkhunda Malikzada remains fresh in our collective memories; killed after being falsely accused of burning a Koran. The vehemence of her execution was and remains unnerving: she was stoned to death, her body was run over by a car, and then she was set on fire. Justice in this case remains elusive, as an Afghan appeals court subsequently set aside the death sentences of four men who participated in the mob killing.
So, perhaps it’s no surprise that Afghanistan is the only country in the world in which the female suicide rate is higher than that of males.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I will admit that my exposure to Afghan culture is limited. There is only so much one can glean from pouring over formal assessment reports, or from the limited engagement with Afghans made necessary by being based within the relative safety of fortified compounds. Yet Afghanistan is hardly alone in the indignities it directs at its female population. Each year approximately 15 million girls around the world become child brides.
Is that so bad? After all, it’s an old custom, having its roots in a time when women and especially girls were counted as property (discounting the fact that such archaic views remain widespread). What’s forced upon these child brides deserves to be consigned to a grim history; no moral argument can justify or rationalize these indignities. Child brides by definition are not able to give informed consent – they are children. Never mind; most are never consulted about these arrangements anyway. Once married and installed within highly constraining traditional roles, such girls must forget any pretense to autonomy or human agency. The satisfaction of their basic human rights to health, education, career choices, and safety evaporates along with their childhood innocence. Many face intense poverty. They have no say over financial resources, even when such resources are the fruits of their own hard labor, making them wholly dependent on their husbands. In many instances, their husband alone holds all rights to family property, and even to the custody of their children. Child brides are frequently forced into early motherhood, at an age when they have neither the physical nor emotional capacity to sustain that transition (globally, pregnancy and childbirth complications are among the leading causes of death in girls aged 15 to 19 in low- and middle-income countries). Many child brides become infected with HIV/AIDS with no ability to protect themselves, and far too many suffer intolerable and degrading levels of domestic violence.
This isn’t insignificant. Nearly one third of all women on this planet were married before their 18th birthday. It isn’t unreasonable to surmise that a significant proportion of such marriages had little or no regard for the will of the girls concerned. It may sound quaintly Victorian to say so, but this is an indignity that has no place in 2015. Anywhere. One third of all women on this planet is an extraordinarily large number to be so afflicted, but astronomical numbers are not necessary to take notice of unacceptable indignities. Every one of those girls and women has a name, and each a story. Each deserves to have her dignity respected, and her dreams and priorities recognized. Each girl has the inalienable right to have a choice about the most significant change in her life – her marriage.
Arguably every rational adult human being has some appreciation of what “dignity” means. Around the world a growing number of activists struggle mightily to protect and promote human dignity, and to champion associated human rights. Yet somehow the pervasive indignity of women’s subjugation, starting at an early and tender age, continues without a global response of commensurate intensity and outrage.
Given that so many cultures are so thoroughly invested in the subjugation and disempowerment of women, and so many women have had no choice but to internalize this immoral status quo, an important component of the challenge must shift to the men. In a world of patriarchal dominance, men retain power to shape outcomes, ideally in close collaboration and reciprocal respect with women.
That time is overdue. The role of men in perpetuating the practice of marrying child brides must stop. It’s time for men to stand up for the dignity of all persons – even women. Especially women, given the moral weight of history.
Or, more accurately, the immoral weight of history, and the irreparable suffering of so many women and girls.