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Sonita: the Afghan teen rapping to end child marriage

  • The unlikely journey from child bride to activist rapper
  • The Human Rights Watch Film Festival is screening Sonita in June

Growing up in Afghanistan, marriage was part of Sonita Alizadeh’s life from an early age. Her parents first considered marrying her off when she was 10, a plan that fell through as her family fled to Iran to escape the Taliban.

When Sonita was 16, her mother told her that a man had offered $9000 for Sonita to become his bride. Wanting to continue her education, Sonita found an unlikely way out of her situation: through her love for music.

Many girls are not as fortunate. In Afghanistan, over 40% of girls are married before the age of 18, and cultural practices such as child betrothal and exchange marriages (families exchanging their daughters) contribute to its high prevalence.

Ever since her video went viral, Sonita has become a passionate advocate against child marriage. The documentary “Sonita”, which will be shown at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival later this month, tells her story. Get your tickets here.

Teenage years

In 2012, documentary filmmaker Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami began filming Sonita’s journey. Three years later, Sonita, the documentary was born.

In the film, Sonita shares her childhood story, growing up during the Taliban, her family separating and moving to Iran, and how she found an emotional outlet through music. She talks about child marriage, stressing the absurdity of selling girls for monetary gain, telling classmates and friends: “we don’t have price tags like sheep… I want to go back to my old school and the books to find my own way.”

Sonita also explains how her own mother was married off at a young age: “when my mother got engaged to my father, she was so young, she called him ‘Uncle’.”

Decades have passed since her mother’s marriage, yet little has changed to address the prevalence of child marriage in Afghanistan. Though the Elimination of Violence Against women (EVAW) law was introduced in 2007, enforcement of the ruling has been lax, and few steps have been made since its adoption.

Becoming the rapper to end child marriage

Though being a female singer in Iran is illegal, Sonita continued song-writing as she felt an issue as great as child marriage needed to be heard: “I believe in my work… for me, only rapping and music are important.”

Sonita struggled to gain recognition for many years, but her determination to fight against the norm was finally rewarded in 2014.

The release of her song, ‘Brides for Sale’, in which she raps about daughters being sold into marriage by their families, brought her to fame. The video reached half a million views on YouTube. Because of this exposure, Sonita is now studying on a scholarship in Utah, USA.

The Human Rights Watch Film Festival

On 19 June, Sonita’s incredible story from potential child bride to rapper will be told at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival at the IFC Center in New York. Hers will be one of many stories shining a light on the courageous individuals whose personal commitment to human rights and justice have made a difference.

Sonita provides compelling insight into the pressure to conform to tradition that girls in Afghanistan often face, whilst showing that change can happen. Do not miss it!