This year's theme for International Day of the Girl is Empowering Adolescent Girls: Ending the Cycle of Violence. Afghanistan remains one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a girl. Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, steady recognition of their human rights, such as in education and reproductive care, has been made. Yet, these gains have been slow, fragile and are easily reversible: poverty, continuing insecurity, regressive social norms, and detrimental cultural practices are all amongst the many constraints facing girls on a daily basis, and prevent their full empowerment and emancipation. Once violence against girls is confronted and momentum for their rights is achieved, society and the nation can start to move forward.
In Afghan society, violence against girls is pervasive. The practice of child marriage epitomises the emotional and physical violence that girls endure at such a young age. Child marriage does not take place in a vacuum; rather it reflects a continuum of abuse they experience in their daily struggle to survive. It assumes their lesser worth and justification of violence through social consent. The long tradition of child brides has resulted in a normalisation of domestic violence, rape and early pregnancy, all which has serious psychological impact on girls well into adulthood.
The practice of 'bride price' is one of the main causes of violence. In eastern Khost province, women are concerned that the increase in bride price to one million Afs (almost $18,000) is leaving women and girls open to violence by her in laws' who resent paying. Some girls are now escaping their father's homes. Despite tribal elders' pushing to limit bride price to 250,000 Afs (almost $2,000), the extortionate practice continues unimpeded. This is all in spite of the Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, 2009 that criminalizes child marriage.
Elsewhere in Afghanistan, the devastating impact of child marriage can be found in the burn unit of Herat hospital, which has seen a rapid increase in burn victims, a direct result of being attacked by her husband's family or self-immolation to escape horrendous abuse. The entrapment of child marriage has left women and girls fearing for their lives as a result of social unwillingness to confront a culture of impunity to such violence and lack of official reporting.
Given that 40% of girls are married before they reach 18 (UNICEF), their disempowerment is most starkly seen by their absence in the educational system. According to Government figures, only 12% of women are literate. A core problem is that 38%, mostly girls, do not have access to education, which directly impacts enrollment: on average, there are 55 girls for every 100 boys enrolled in secondary school. Of those whose families can afford an education, they risk their lives every day just to go to school. As a result of insecurity and strong Taliban presence in many areas, girls are frequently attacked, and threats against parents and teachers are common. Many teachers have lost their lives because of their courage, faith and passion for teaching girls.
Education has a powerful transformative impact on the lives of girls: their families are healthier; they marry later; have fewer children and have greater opportunities for income generation. For example, the World Bank reports that for each additional year a girl remains in education, child mortality reduces by 18 per thousand births. Her future income can increase by 10-20% for each additional year in primary school and by 15-25% in secondary school. This clearly shows the critical importance of education for tapping into girls' potential and their contribution towards peace, prosperity and economic empowerment.
At 24 years old, Shabana BasII-Rasikh is a true embodiment of the saying 'when you educate a girl, you educate a nation.' Raised as a bach posh (girl dressed as a boy), she made the dangerous journey to school to receive her education in secret and under constant threat from Taliban attacks. She is now a college graduate and global ambassador for 10x10, a global campaign to educate women. Having survived all the struggles to get an education, she is now helping other girls receive their education. Shabana has co-founded SOLA, one of the first internationally accredited boarding school for girls in Afghanistan. Through her success, she espouses one of the most fundamental forces behind ending violence against girls: fathers. Throughout her young life, her father has fought alongside her to ensure she thrives into an educated woman. In the context of Afghanistan, greater mobilization and support of men who recognize the value of their daughters is a vital weapon to end the cycle of violence and empower girls.
Even so, progress cannot be achieved without sufficient funding. This year has seen many commitments to ending violence against women during the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict and an astounding $103 billion has been pledged at the Clinton Global Initiative to ensure girls remain in school and are provided with economic opportunities.
The release of these funds and collection of gender-sensitive, disaggregated data is needed to ensure better data is available to assess girls' access, progress and learning outcomes in school as well as information on contributing social factors such as child marriage, early pregnancy, girls' nutrition and distance form schools. Such data will help the Afghan Government in key policy decisions, especially on hiring female teachers and building schools closer to where girls live to encourage greater enrollment.
Afghanistan's new President, Ashraf Ahmedzai, must continue to consolidate the gains made for girls and facilitate their engagement within civic, economic and political life. More resources, capacity, and political leadership must be shown to combat violence against women and girls. For child marriage in particular, a country-wide awareness campaign about its negative effects should be overseen by the new Government. It is only then that Afghanistan will start to shed its image of oppression and suppression inflicted on girls.
In this crucial period of political transition and troop withdrawal at the end of the year, it is imperative that young Afghan girls are empowered with the skills, knowledge and courage to stand up to violence perpetrated against them. Greater investment in gender-sensitive educational systems will provide the building blocks to a more inclusive, sustainable and peaceful society. The future of Afghanistan depends on trailblazers like Shabana BasII-Rasikh to fulfil their human rights and their country's expectations. Girls should not have to fight alone.
This blog was originally published with the British Irish Agencies Afghanistan Group.