Seated on a hulking sofa at the Kabul children’s center she calls home, Obaida shares the preteen habits of most other 12-year-old girls around the world. She squirms, she giggles, she fidgets with her bracelets before unleashing a torrent of chatter about her love of school, her fellow students, and her computer class.
Unlike most girls her age, however, Obaida has already been engaged and nearly married to a man decades her senior. Her father sold her a year ago to a local Kabul family for money, allegedly to feed his own drug habit.
Obaida had been handed over to live with her future in-laws at age 11. They were simply waiting for her to begin menstruating to finalize the ceremony and consummate the marriage. Only the intervention of her older sister Maryam, married off by her father at 11 to a blind man nearly 20 years older, along with support from a local women’s shelter and the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, stopped Obaida’s wedding from proceeding. Together, shelter staff and commission members went to ask the police to intervene, which they did, sweeping into the family’s house to rescue the girl.
“Things like this happen in every province, in every district, all the time, but no one talks about it,” said Naderi. “It is just so common. These girls are money.”
Underage marriage violates Afghanistan’s civil code, which permits marriage for girls at age 16 and boys at age 18. The country’s new violence-against-women law strengthened the statute by commanding jail time “of not less than two years” for anyone marrying an underage bride.
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon: Let Women Protect Afghanistan
• Azadeh Moaveni: New Twist in Iran Stoning Case In practice, however, enforcing the law is nearly impossible and custom often trumps statutes. Obaida was one of the fortunate in a country in which more than 50 percent of girls marry before 16, according to estimates from the country’s human-rights commission and UNIFEM.
After her rescue, Obaida landed at the Women for Afghan Women shelter, which offers a temporary home to victims of marital abuse. But staff thought the shelter was no place for such a young child. As soon as the organization opened its first center for the children of women in prison, children who otherwise would grow up with their mothers in jail, they moved Obaida to her new home.
She has flourished ever since. The loquacious and entirely engaging preteen no longer resembles the shy and withdrawn girl I met a year ago at ceremonies marking the center’s opening. Now she speaks in incessant streams, full of ideas free of punctuation.
“I could never have imagined a place like this where we have good meals, clothing, teachers,” Obaida said, flashing a smile. “This is the first place where I can really relax; I just never thought I would live in a place like this.”
Along with their regular classes at a nearby school, Obaida and the 45 other boys and girls staying at the center take English, computer and Dari courses with teachers provided by Women for Afghan Women. Obaida is at the top of her class and receives abundant praise from both her schoolteachers and the center’s instructors, who call her a model student and a “very intelligent girl.”
Education, says Obaida, is all she wants for the future.
“I am in fourth class now; I want to study fifth-class books also and make real progress with my studies,” she said. “I want to go to university and become a pilot—I want to fly airplanes.”
But there is a problem, one that could jeopardize Obaida’s happy ending. Recently her mother has been visiting the shelter and telling her daughter she wants her to come home and live with her younger siblings once more. She has promised Obaida that her worst days are behind her, that she has kicked out her drug-addicted husband who sold her two oldest daughters, that she is ready for a new start. She has enrolled in training for the Afghan National Police, she says, and wants to be strong for her children. Obaida says she believes her mother and wants to return to her while remaining in school. Shelter administrators, however, fear that her mother will sell the girl into marriage once more if she returns and extinguish a future they believe is incredibly promising.
Her older sister shares their fear.
“If she finds someone now, she will sell Obaida again,” Maryam said of her mother, who has talked to her about finding Maryam another husband, an idea the 17-year-old has firmly rejected. “I did not know anything before and now I do, and I will stop her from marrying us.”
Although Maryam calls herself an unexceptional student, she is adamant that Obaida should stay at the children’s center, and in school.
“For Obaida, I want her to finish her education, then she can decide for herself what she wants to do,” said Maryam, now seeking a divorce from her husband with assistance from shelter lawyers after years of abuse.
At the center of child marriage is economics. Families in this desperately poor country see girls as currency that must be spent before it gets too old. A man with daughters is said to be rich.
And for every Obaida who is rescued, there are thousands who aren’t. This thought haunts Manizha Naderi, executive director of Women for Afghan Women, and pushes her to expand the shelter programs into new cities.
“Things like this happen in every province, in every district, all the time, but no one talks about it,” said Naderi. “It is just so common.”
“These girls,” she said, “are money.”
Naderi is frustrated and worried about her star pupil. But she knows the shelter cannot hold her so long as her mother agrees to regular visits and to keep her daughter in school.
Although she sometimes feels beaten by the fight to stop child marriage in a culture in which it is so deeply entrenched, Naderi says it is her job to keep fighting for even the small victories.
“Even if we save one person, it is worth it,” said Naderi. “The fact is that we saved Obaida and it was right. Maryam and Obaida probably won’t sell their daughters, and so we are breaking the cycle right there.”
Obaida, for her part, seems convinced that the past will no longer be a problem. She said she has “forgotten everything from the time before” she arrived at the shelter and wants only to look toward her future.
“I don’t want to marry, I want to get educated,” she said. She is confident that her mother will go along with her wishes.
“I am sure that my mother is much stronger than before,” she said. “I think all my problems are finished, and I won’t face any more problems in the future.”
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is the deputy director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations. She has spent the last five years reporting on women entrepreneurs in conflict and post-conflict regions, including Afghanistan, Rwanda, and Bosnia. Her upcoming book, The Dressmaker of Khair Khana , tells the story of a young Afghan entrepreneur whose business created jobs and hope for women in her neighborhood during the Taliban years. It will be published by HarperCollins in March 2011.