By: Ha Tran
My internship with Ayni started with a discussion on a fact that has been noticed over time at the schools that AYNI has built in Afghanistan: the significant drop of girls’ enrollment at 8th and 9th grade (13 – 14 years old). Beside other factors such as distance (there are not enough schools in remote areas), security (harassment of the girls on the way to school), lack of female teacher (girls who reach puberty usually are not allowed to be taught by men), perception on girls’ education (girls only need to acquire primary education), child marriage is proven to be a major barrier to girls’ education: girls are usually married off at 13-14 years old and very few make it back to school once married. Thus, I was charged with researching child marriage and provide recommendations on what Ayni can do to tackle the issue.
The issue that was initially thought to be somewhat local to the community, or the country, unfold as a long-standing problem that nations have been grappling with for decades. Child marriage is identified to be a major obstacle to achieve 6 of the 8 millenium development goals, in other words, without tackling child marriage, the international community would not fulfill its commitment to reduce global poverty. Each day, nearly 39,000 girls under the age of 18 become child brides (CARE). The issue has captured an increasing amount of attention and its profile has been raised through media and advocacy work by international organizations. In July 2014, the first Girl Summit took place in UK aimed at mobilising efforts to end child, early and forced marriage. The first US – Africa summit in August 2014, initiated by the US President Obama, took ending child marriage as a key element to call on efforts from leaders.
According to UNICEF in 2012, Afghanistan ranks number 25th of the countries with the highest rate of child marriage (quantified by the number of women from 20-24 married before the age of 18), which appears surprisingly low to the people who know about the country. This statistic has bothered us for a while until we found a number of reports stating how challenging it is to collect data in a war zone and thus the result for Afghanistan remains questionable. An expert on women empowerment in the country that I had a chance to talk to, explained how sensitive the topic is amongst Afghans, leading to an underreported statistic. She believed Afghanistan should be at least number 10 on the list.
The research gradually unveiled the scale of the problem and how much effort has been put in tackling child marriage by the international community. Since 1990, international organizations started implementing programs in the developing world, mostly in Sub-saharan Africa and South Asia where early marriage is most prevalent. In 2007, the International center for research on women (ICRW) undertook and published the first study on the programs worldwide related to child marriage. Evaluating 23 out of 150 programs that have a component dedicated to preventing child marriage brought ICRW to conclude on the strategies used to address early marriage:
1. Empower girls with skills, information and support networks
2. Educate and engage parents and community members
3. Ensure a high-quality education for girls
4. Provide economic incentives to girls and their families
5. Advocate girls’ rights protecting laws
Lessons have been drawn from past programs but before anything can be implemented at Ayni, the interventions must be contextualized, especially in an extremely culturally, ethnically and politically complex setting like Afghanistan (Something noticeable is that not many of the programs having child marriage prevention as a component have been implemented in Afghanistan, let alone programs that tackle child marriage directly). Therefore, after laying out the list of recommended strategies for tackling and preventing child marriage as well as the models of successful programs in other countries, reaching out to different stakeholders who understand Afghan culture and who have a certain expertise in the field to verify the validity of the interventions is critical. If the first part of the project, literature research, serves as the foundation for understanding the problem, the second part, stakeholders reaching out, really brings us to the deepest layers of the Afghan culture and moves us a step further in piloting the interventions in rural Afghanistan. This is where I really got to learn about the complexity of the Afghan culture, the decision making power at different levels in Afghan society and its implications on the best approaches to dealing with early marriage.
An exemplary successful intervention program, Berhane Hewan, was implemented in 2004-2006 in rural Ethiopia by the Population Council in partnering with the Ethiopian government. Along with engaging community members to support girls’ education and educating the girls themselves, Berhane Hewan used a solution which was considered pretty creative: provide goats and sheeps to families at the end of the program conditional upon keeping the girls at school for the duration of the program. This intervention makes sense because financial burden is one of the most important reasons for parents to marry off their daughters early (they cannot afford feeding too many people; (in some places) they are given a certain amount of money for giving their daughters away). And apparently it worked in rural Ethiopia. As for Afghanistan, poverty remains on top of the list of causes for child marriage, since parents have the right to a “bride price” at the marriage. Therefore, alleviate families’ financial burden by awarding goats and sheeps, which remain important animals in a country that rely on farming, sounds promising. However, talking to people deeply involved in Afghan culture gave me the feeling that this is something never been done in Afghanistan and that anything using money need a lot of attention since money risks ruining the culture and does not bring about long-term impact. In a country where decisions are made collectively and community leaders have tremendous influence on households, money might not be as effective in coping with child marriage as community education and engagement. I came across a report on an awareness program about girls’ education implemented in an Afghan village. A man who initially had not sent his daughter to school, after attending a training session where a community leader explains that the prophet Muhammad encourages both male and female education, stated that he had not known this information before and that from then on he would make sure to let his daughter going to school. I was amazed by how simple it sounds and realized that even inside Afghanistan, the interventions must be contextualized to each village, each community. Afghan society is organized into very tight-knit communities that even people coming from other villages in the same district might be considered outsiders, which renders Ayni’s work in rural villages more challenging.
At first, Ayni targeted child marriage as a barrier to girls’ enrolment at Ayni’s schools: because girls get married early, they drop out of school. We wanted to prevent child marriage so that girls can continue on their education. However, girls might drop out because of other reasons and those who do not go to school are more vulnerable to early marriage. Thus, child marriage and lack of education constitute a chicken-and-egg problem: child marriage is at the same time a cause and a consequence of the lack of education. In other words, simply continuing doing what Ayni is doing to keep girls at school: build schools in remote areas, train female teachers and provide computer training will help preventing child marriage. Also, in fulfilling our mission in Afghanistan, Ayni needs to tackle child marriage. In a nutshell, early marriage is now a thread woven into our programs.
Moving forward, Ayni is exploring partnership opportunities with organizations in the area to coordinate on implementing community engagement programs. From Ayni’s part, Ayni envisions utilizing its existing relationship network with the ministry of education, principals, teachers and parents associations at its schools. There is still a long way to go, but beyond anything, we are excited to take on a new pathway, which is grappling with child marriage, to work towards our mission. With the interventions we are about to implement, we believe we can make a real impact on the community as a tiny organization with very limited resources.
With child marriage and other innovative projects underway, I believe Ayni is stronger than ever. After 3 months working at Ayni as an intern, I’m still involved with its projects even after finishing my internship. I support them and I can’t wait to see how far Ayni can go.