Afghanistan: Child marriage delivers girls from hunger, temporarily wards off famine for her family Print E-mail
Sunday Magazine July 9, 2006

The Bride Price

Read also: Afghanistan: Lifting the Veil - No End to Women's Suffering?

Photographs by STEPHANIE SINCLAIR for The New York Times
Text by BARRY BEARAK


Ghulam Haider, 11, is to be married to Faiz Mohammed, 40. She had hoped to be a teacher but was forced to quit her classes when she became engaged. 


Family and friends gathered to celebrate Ghulam's engagement. The father of the bride, Mahmoud Haider, 32, said he is unhappy giving his daughter away at such a young age, but has no choice due to severe poverty.


Majabin Mohammmed, 13, was given away as payment for a gambling debt


Girls are valuable workers in a land where survival is scratched from the grudging soil of a half-acre parcel. In her husband's home, she is more valuable yet. She can have sex and bear children.


Husbands are not ordinarily old enough to be their wives' fathers or grandfathers, but such February-September couples as those pictured here are hardly rare either. The girl's wishes are customarily disregarded, and her marriage will end her opportunities for schooling and independent work


Roshan Qasem, 11, will join the household of Said Mohammed, 55; his first wife; their three sons; and their daughter, who is the same age as Roshan.

In many societies, the term "child bride" calls to mind impetuous sweethearts, a ladder cautiously positioned beneath a bedroom window, a silent kiss in the moonlight and a young couple making an anxious getaway to a justice of the peace. But this is not a ready image the world over. In Afghanistan, a child bride is very often just that: a child, even a preteen, her innocence betrothed to someone older, even much, much older.

Rather than a willing union between a man and woman, marriage is frequently a transaction among families, and the younger the bride, the higher the price she may fetch. Girls are valuable workers in a land where survival is scratched from the grudging soil of a half-acre parcel. In her parents' home, a girl can till fields, tend livestock and cook meals. In her husband's home, she is more useful yet. She can have sex and bear children.

Afghanistan is not alone in this predilection toward early wedlock. Globally, the number of child brides is hard to tabulate; they live mostly in places where births, deaths and the human milestones in between go unrecorded. But there are estimates. About 1 in 7 girls in the developing world (excluding China) gets married before her 15th birthday, according to analyses done by the Population Council, an international research group.

In the huge Indian states of Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, the proportion is 36 percent; in Bangladesh, 37 percent; in northwest Nigeria, 48 percent; in the Amhara region of Ethiopia, 50 percent. Tens of millions of girls are having babies before their bodies are mature enough, increasing the likelihood of death from hemorrhaging, obstructed labor and other complications.

Stephanie Sinclair's striking photographs of child brides in Afghanistan remind me of my own travels over remote landscapes during the time of the Taliban, when recurring years of drought had parched the final resources from millions of the destitute. Fathers then were especially keen to convert their daughters into brides. It was a way to deliver the girl from hunger ­ and a way to at least temporarily ward off famine for the rest of the family. Young boys were sold into bondage with the same painful practicality. Rarely have I seen anything more heartbreaking than the tears of a relinquished child.

The drought has since passed, but the poverty remains, as does the widespread custom of early marriage. Some Afghans readily use their daughters to settle debts and assuage disputes. Polygamy is practiced. A man named Mohammed Fazal, 45, told Sinclair that village elders had urged him to take his second wife, 13-year-old Majabin, in lieu of money owed him by the girl's father. The two men had been gambling at cards while also ingesting opium and hashish.

But the practice of early marriage stems as much from entrenched culture as from financial need. Bridal virginity is a matter of honor. Afghan men want to marry virgins, and parents prefer to yield their daughters before misbehavior or abduction has brought the family shame and made any wedding impossible.

Unfortunately, there are no reliable data about the age of Afghans at marriage. Husbands are not ordinarily old enough to be their wives' fathers or grandfathers, but such February-September couples as those pictured here are hardly rare either. In such marriages, the man is likely to view the age difference as a fair bargain, his years of experience in exchange for her years of fecundity. At the same time, the girl's wishes are customarily disregarded. Her marriage will end her opportunities for schooling and independent work.

On the day she witnessed the engagement party of 11-year-old Ghulam Haider to 40-year-old Faiz Mohammed, Sinclair discreetly took the girl aside. "What are you feeling today?" the photographer asked. "Nothing," the bewildered girl answered. "I do not know this man. What am I supposed to feel?"