Ever wondered what it’s like to be an advocate for children's rights in Afghanistan? What are the challenges? What keeps activists going in the face of adversity?
Meet Mohammad Yousef.
Mohammad wanted to improve the plight of boys and girls working on the streets of Kabul, so he founded Afghanistan’s Children – A New Approach (ASCHIANA), a grassroots organisation that provides children with basic education, life skills and training to help them out of poverty. Within a few years, ASCHIANA expanded to include educational programmes for teenage girls, often at risk of early marriage.
39% of Afghan girls are married before they reach their eighteenth birthday. The country has been ranked one of the most dangerous places in the world for women to live, and the planned withdrawal of American troops has raised concerns over the safety of women and girls.
A few weeks ago, we asked you what you wanted to ask Mohammad and you came back with truly thought-provoking questions. Thanks to all of you who contributed!
From working with child brides to pressuring the Afghan government to uphold its human rights commitment, Mohammad answered your questions on what it’s like to try end child marriage in Afghanistan.
Mohammad: Culture and traditions would be the first obstacle - people see us as going against the culture and traditions of the community. And I would say that the lack of security in Afghanistan is another critical obstacle, because families sometimes see violence and sexual abuse and they think they can protect their girls with an early marriage.
There are also economic obstacles, like poverty; families cannot always afford to take care of the girl – the food, the clothes, the education – so they think that if she gets married, she will have something for herself.
When we speak to people in the community or the family, we say that we understand that you are trying to provide food for your children, but we say: “early marriage puts the life of your child in danger, your child will not be happy for all their life, all their future”.
For those girls who are already married, we try to contact their mother-in-law or their father-in-law and we mention about the dangers and risks for young girls to get pregnant and we say that it is the responsibility of the family to look after her. We ask them, if this were your daughter, would you want to put her in this situation? Most of them they realise no.
When they start to realise the dangers of early marriage, things change slowly, slowly. They realise this is not something good for our child. They say, “We want to protect her from violence and danger”.
Mohammad: When we share a clear message in proper ways, in the right context, with the right considerations, most of the men and women we talk to change their mind. Obviously, not 100% of people change their minds because it’s not easy in some areas and it is difficult to have access to those areas, but we do see a positive impact, especially on those who join our programmes and activities.
(In response to “how do you overcome the opposition?”)
Mohammad: Actually, when we are talking about human beings, for us it is girls and boys, women and men. We tell people that everyone can and should contribute to society, especially women and girls.
We say to families and communities that if we don’t help girls and women then they won’t be able to care for their children in proper ways and they won’t be able to contribute in community and society. We say that women and girls can have a great impact on reducing poverty in the family and in society.
[In response to: ‘how do you achieve your aim of helping the girl child?’]
We have various programmes for girls who were married at a young age, and we work with them to provide them with education and life skills. We help them with their education, with management of the house and housekeeping; we give her skills that she will need in her new family and skills to help her earn an income. When a girl earns an income she will be more respected in her new family.
When girls marry and leave their house for a new house, they are not familiar with how to deal with their mother-in-law or father-in-law because they are young and don’t know. They think it will be similar to life with her own family but their environment has completely changed. We help them with news skills for how to manage their home and how to manage with children.
We also invite the husband, mother and father-in-law to our programmes to sensitise them to the problems the girl might face, especially health issues, and encourage them to treat the girl as their own daughter, their own family member. We tell them that they should not think that because she comes from another family, that she doesn’t know anything or that she does not behave very well.
For the girls who are not married, we do skills programmes that help them manage their lives; we also contact with other stakeholders, like unions of the mother and child to help us with awareness-raising in the community and society. We are working with leaders in the community, with religious people and media to talk about the dangers of early marriage for the future of the life of the girl.
Mohammad: We feel it’s important that we work with the whole community: the families, the girls, the media, the elders of the community…etc. We tell people that, if you don’t want something for yourself that you know will have a negative impact, then you should not want it for other human beings.
When people put themselves in the place of a girl who marries really young, and imagine the family responsibilities they must take on, that’s when they realise and understand the burden of early marriage. That’s when they start to change their mind, and often try to change the mind of other people too.
Mohammad: Education is an answer, but not the only one.
We need to work on all the factors that have an impact on early marriage: address families’ economic situation, improve the economic environment, and ensure the security of communities. If you are educated but the economic environment isn’t changing, if there are no economic opportunities for girls, or basic safety, then education will not decrease early marriage.
When all of those things – education, economic opportunity, security – finally come together, I hope we will see an end to early marriage in Afghanistan.
Mohammad: Absolutely! Pressure from the international community does have an impact on our government. One thing that is particularly important is when the international community comes together, like pressure from non-governmental organisations and other governments, that’s when there’s a change for really meaningful impact.
Politicians and the government know very well that people outside of Afghanistan are watching, but sometimes they close their eyes because they are much more interested by the power.
It’s important that international organisations like Girls Not Brides and other activists – human rights, girls’ rights – continue to bring pressure to their own country and government to help us make the Afghan government uphold its commitments to human rights, children’s rights, justice. We need that pressure to be continuously present in the minds of Afghan officials.
Mohammad: We have several campaigns and trainings on different programs such as early marriages, child rights, programmes for girls who are already married, awareness raising among young children to prevent early marriages, programmes that encourage parliamentarians to increase the age of marriage for girls from 16 to 18. In order to carry on we are in desperate need of financial assistance and political support from international community to fulfil our objectives and goals.
We always welcome donations to our organisation (Aschiana) as they help us to continue our work and to reach more people in the community by working with religious leaders and journalists. With more funds, we hope to create a local network where people can work together to prevent early marriages in the community. We always welcome donations to our organisation (please donate here) as they help us to continue our work and to reach more people in the community by working with religious leaders and journalists. With more funds, we hope to create a local network where people can work together to prevent early marriages in the community.
Mohammad: I agree – the job of a teacher is very important; training of the teachers to help teach children in proper ways, it will help the culture of the country and will have a positive impact.
[We asked ‘How are you coping?’]
Mohammad: It can be very difficult to work with families and children in need, when you try to defend their rights, and a lot of people look to you for help, to negotiate in their favour with people in power in different groups. But to me, if I see at least one child succeed in school this year or see happiness in that child, that’s what motivates to keep working for the rest of the people.
Aschiana was founded to help Afghani children affected by war, those working in the streets, and other vulnerable children with difficulties. It works in the provinces of Afghanistan, Kabul, Mazar, Herat, Parwan, Badakhshan and Paktya. Since 1992 it has worked on child protection and the promotion of child rights in society. The organisation has focused on ending domestic violence and sexual abuse, as well as eradicating child and forced marriages. Aschiana has founded rehabilitation centres in Afghanistan for traumatised and disabled children, and is working to improve women’s rights and capacities in society.
To find out more about Aschiana, visit their website: http://www.aschiana.com/
In the time it has taken to read this article 101 girls under the age of 18 have been married
Each year, 12 million girls are married before the age of 18
That is 23 girls every minute
Nearly 1 every 3 seconds