Trading a 13-year-old daughter for a new wife. Rangina, Afghanistan
Rangina’s mother died when she was 12. In 2003, at the age of 13 she was forcibly married in abadaal (exchange) marriage as her father wanted to acquire a new wife. According to Rangina, the man that she was forced to marry had mental health problems.
“I was my father’s only daughter, so when my mother died and he wanted a new wife he gave me away in exchange. The man he gave me to was mentally ill. I did not want to marry him, but I had no choice. My father did not listen, and my mother was dead. My father thought only about his new marriage, not about me, his daughter.”
Rangina says that her in-laws verbally and physically abused her:
“All the family members were beating me, and calling me names. I was so miserable. My husband couldn’t speak properly, so I didn’t understand what he was saying. My mother-in-law would always say to me, “You are worthless—see how little your father cared about you—he married you to my son, and he is like this, he is mentally ill.”
My father thought only about his new marriage, not about me, his daughter.
After one year, Rangina ran away. Despite coming from a remote and highly conservative area of eastern Afghanistan, she managed to journey to the capital, a perilous trip for a young woman to make alone. She made contact with the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, who arranged for her to stay in a shelter. Her husband’s family found out, and came to Kabul to demand her return. She told us,
“They came and asked for me to come back. I said no, they kept coming. I always say no. I don’t want to go back. I can’t go back. They want to kill me.”
An official who wishes to remain anonymous told Human Rights Watch that the family discovered the location of the shelter and made threats against her and her staff. The family enlisted the support of various powerful regional political figures to pressure the government to return Rangina to them. A delegation of elders from her province, with the backing of various senators and members of parliament, called on the Ministry of Women’s Affairs to return her. The Ministry of Interior also supported their efforts, despite the illegality of her marriage under Afghan law.
The case was even debated in parliament, where a majority of MPs who spoke did so in favor of Rangina being returned to her husband’s family. Some MPs also called for the Ministry of Women’s Affairs to be closed because it was encouraging girls to run away from home. The director of the shelter says that the debate became very personalized:
“In parliament they named me, they said I was hiding her, and that I wasn’t Muslim, I was Western, I was working for foreigners, for foreign ideas. They got 500 signatures against shelters, against me, against the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, and took it to the president.”
The lobbying attempts of the husband’s family culminated in a meeting that included representatives from the Office of the President, the Ministry of Interior, the Supreme Court, parliamentary representatives, and the Ministry of Women’s Affairs.
President Karzai became directly involved. Instead of ensuring protection for Rangina and enforcement of Afghanistan’s marriage law, he urged Rangina to trust her husband’s family when they promised they would not harm her. Rangina refused and said:
“I told Karzai that if he was so confident then he could send his wife or daughter to my village instead of me.”
The cousin of Rangina’s husband, Haji Munowar Khan, led the campaign to have her returned. He told a BBC reporter that Rangina would not be returned to her husband against her will, and she could instead be given to one of his brothers:
“We don’t want our woman to be in Kabul, we can’t allow her to have another husband. We’re not foreigners–we’re not Russians–we’re not unbelievers, we’re Muslims, and we are Pashtuns, and for Pashtuns three things matter–our religion, our women, and our country. To defend these three things we will give up our lives. We’ve promised we won’t do anything to her, and if she comes back to our village we’ll promise again, we won’t harm her at all.”
Rangina has now been living in a shelter for five years. Her attempts to gain a legal separation from her husband, which began in 2007, have so far been unsuccessful. Rangina’s husband has repeatedly failed to appear in court, which under the civil code can be grounds for granting a woman a separation. However, there has still been no resolution.
In August 2007, the Supreme Court accepted a request to have the case heard by the Family Court in Kabul on the grounds that her life could be endangered if she traveled to her home province. However, the Family Court demanded witnesses to prove that she suffered abuse and that her husband was mentally ill. Nobody from her home province agreed to testify on her behalf, because of fear of retribution from the husband’s family in the region. No witness protection program exists. Rangina said:
“I don’t like the courts or the judges. Whenever I go there they say, “Why did you run away? Why did you do this, why you do that?” And now they ask for evidence even though they know I cannot give it to them. It is too dangerous.”
According to a human rights worker connected to the case, the Family Court wants to delay a decision and wait for a presidential intervention:
“The judges are supportive, but they are too afraid to take responsibility because they have no security. There will be danger for the judge if she takes a decision.”
They are saying that her husband is a good man, and he gave her clothes, food, medicine. They say she’s a bad lady to leave her home.
The head of the Family Court is Qazi Rahima Razayee. She denied that she is afraid to act. Instead, she said that the problem was that nobody wants to testify on Rangina’s behalf:
“Nobody wants to come to support her. They are saying that her husband is a good man, and he gave her clothes, food, medicine. They say she’s a bad lady to leave her home, she’s not a good lady.”
When asked why the court could not provide a separation on the grounds that the marriage had been illegal in the first place, since Rangina was underage and forced to marry, the judge said:
“She was 13 when she married this person. This was against our law. But if she didn’t want to marry her husband then she should have come to us at that time and made her objections. Instead she stayed with him for two years and she was happy with that, and only when she’s 15 does she come to us and complain, so then we can’t do anything.”
Faced with pressure from the president, hostility from powerful MPs, and extralegal arguments by the head of the Family Court, women and girls in situations such as Rangina have little reason to trust the state or government to protect them.
For a full list of sources and to find out more about Rangina’s case, visit Human Rights Watch.