The Afghan government launched a National Action Plan this week to end child marriage, an important initiative in a country where about a third of girls marry before age 18. Child marriage is deeply harmful, leaving girls at increased risk of leaving school, health consequences due to early pregnancy, poverty, and domestic violence.
In Afghanistan, poverty, limited access to education and health care, little support for victims of domestic violence, high birth rates, and harmful perceptions about the role of women heighten the risks. “Mariam,” a pseudonym, told us how she was forced to marry young, never attended school, and was a mother of five by age 22. “Rahima” said that at about 13 she became the second wife of a 75-year-old man. For many Afghan girls, child marriage brutally ends dreams of a happy future.
In recent years, there has been a major global push to end child marriage. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, launched in 2016, commit all countries to end child marriage by 2030. National Action Plans are one tool countries are using to try to meet this commitment.
Unfortunately, the Afghan government’s record of following through on plans to protect women’s rights is abysmal. The 2007 National Action Plan for the Women of Afghanistan has done little but gather dust. The 2009 Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women is largely unenforced. The 2015 plan to implement Security Council Resolution 1325, which requires full involvement of women in peace processes, languishes, with no realistic plan – or funding – for its implementation.
There is little evidence to suggest the child marriage National Action Plan will be different. The plan does not appear to be publicly available. Inquiries to the presidential palace and media center received no response. Mention of it is conspicuously absent from the websites of the key ministries.
Afghanistan has no shortage of plans to empower women and girls, but these plans have had negligible impact on people’s lives. The child marriage plan should be an important tool for government action. But it should also spur Afghanistan’s donors to press the government and provide support for real change.
Afghanistan’s child brides need much more than one more empty promise.