(New York) – Afghan President Hamid Karzai should take urgent action to fight child marriage and domestic violence or risk further harm to development and public health in Afghanistan, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter  to the president.
In the 15-page briefing paper, “Afghanistan: Ending Child Marriage and Domestic Violence ,” Human Rights Watch highlights the health and economic consequences of marriage under age 18 and violence against women and girls. Karzai, who is barred by term limits from running in the April 2014 presidential election, should make full enforcement of the 2009 Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (the EVAW Law) a priority for his last year in office.
“President Karzai’s signing of the violence against women law in 2009 ushered in vital protections against child marriage and domestic violence,” said Liesl Gerntholtz, women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch. “By ensuring the law is enforced, Karzai would leave a lasting legacy of support for the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan.”
The law imposed tough new penalties for abuse of women, including making child marriage and forced marriage crimes under Afghan law for the first time. Child marriage remains common in Afghanistan, increasing the likelihood of early pregnancy, which heightens the risk of death and injury in childbirth. According to a 2010 mortality survey by the Ministry of Public Health, 53 percent of women in the 25-49 age group were married by the age of 18; 12 percent of Afghan girls aged 15-19 became pregnant or gave birth; and 47 percent of deaths of women aged 20 to 24 were related to pregnancy. It found that one Afghan woman died every two hours because of pregnancy.
Child marriage and early pregnancy also contributes to fistula, a preventable childbirth injury in which prolonged labor creates a hole in the birth canal. A 2011 government report found that 25 percent of the women and girls diagnosed with fistula were younger than 16 when they married and 17 percent were under 16 when they first gave birth. Fistula leaves one leaking urine or feces, and often results in social ostracism, loss of earning capacity, medical expenses for treatment, and depression. Left untreated, fistula can cause further serious medical problems, even death.
Children born as a result of child marriages also suffer increased health risks. The 2010 mortality survey found a higher death rate among children born to Afghan mothers under age 20 compared to those born to older mothers, which reflects global findings.
“Afghan officials should act to end the harm being caused by child marriage,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The damage to young mothers, their children, and Afghan society as a whole is incalculable.”
Domestic violence harms individual women and their families and also takes an economic toll on society, including through healthcare costs and lost productivity, Human Rights Watch said. Domestic violence is alarmingly common in Afghanistan: a 2006 study by Global Rights, an international nongovernmental organization, found 85 percent of Afghan women reporting that they had experienced physical, sexual, or psychological violence or forced marriage. An estimated 2,000 Afghan women and girls attempt suicide by setting themselves on fire each year, which is linked to domestic violence and early or forced marriages.
In the decade since the overthrow of the Taliban government, Afghanistan has failed to take measures adopted by other Islamic countries and countries with large Muslim populations to curtail child marriage and domestic violence, Human Rights Watch said. Bangladesh, Egypt, and Jordan among others have increased the minimum age of marriage to 18. Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Malaysia have introduced legal reforms to combat domestic violence.
At a donor conference in Tokyo in July 2012, the Afghan government promised to do more to enforce the EVAW law in return for $16 billion in pledges for future aid to Afghanistan. The government should also implement the 2008 Plan of Action for the Advancement of Women adopted by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). The plan of action calls for the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women, including preventing early and forced marriages, which are considered an impediment to improving the health, education, political participation, social justice, and well-being of women.
Human Rights Watch urged Karzai to initiate awareness campaigns about the harms of child marriage and domestic violence, and to urgently take the following measures:
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