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Afghanistan: Helen Clark's moving account of child brides, poverty & empowerment

Saved from being wed: at age 12, Asma, right, pictured with her parents, was destined to marry until a local imam intervened. Photo/Christopher Lee/Supplied

Former Prime Minister Helen Clark visits war-torn Afghanistan to see how World Vision is helping women and children who lack basic things we take for granted.

“I wanted to throw myself down a well.” Those words are being spoken softly to me by 13-year-old Zerygul as she recalls the moment she found out she was to be forced into marriage. She tells me her story as we sit in a lively but basic community centre in Herat, western Afghanistan, on my third visit to the country early last month.

In 2003, I travelled to Kabul and Bamyan as Prime Minister, and in 2015 to Kabul only as UN Development Programme administrator. This time, I have been invited by World Vision to see its programmes in action in the western provinces of Herat and Bādghīs. But I go with some trepidation, as the levels of conflict and insecurity are high.

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More than 17 years after the fall of the Taliban Government, many of Afghanistan’s people continue to live in abject poverty – the level has risen significantly in recent years, along with the level of conflict. The rate of illiteracy is one of the highest in the world, and the country has frequent severe droughts. Families and communities never know when the ongoing conflict will claim the lives of family members or friends. Living year after year like this is simply exhausting.

The focus for my visit is to see up close the particular challenges for girls and women, including forced early “marriage”, in some of the poorest parts of the country. I am struck by how brave, smart and resilient so many of these women are.

Twenty-year-old Fatima has an engineering degree, but isn’t allowed to work in her chosen industry – her ambition is outpacing the change in attitudes of her family and society. Yet she tells me she is hopeful and determined to “raise awareness of the importance of females in society”. It soon becomes clear the challenges women face need to be seen as part of the bigger picture of poverty, illiteracy, drought and conflict.

Helen Clark with the brother of a young girl being considered for marriage. Photo/Christopher Lee/Supplied

Child marriage pressures

In the environs of the city of Herat, we sit with two families where the mothers have been under pressure to hand over their young daughters for marriage for economic reasons. In both cases, the father is not living with the family and is laid low by opium addiction. Each mother, therefore, is responsible for supporting her large family.

Twelve-year-old Asma’s father has agreed to her marriage to pay for his treatment. Zerygul’s mother has had difficulty paying the rent. By agreeing to have Zerygul wed as a second wife, she will receive the equivalent of more than a year’s rent.

These stories both have a happy ending for Asma and Zerygul. With the support of informed members of their communities, including the imams, their mothers refuse to let them be married.

But this didn’t happen in a vacuum. World Vision and its partners, as well as government ministries, have been working to improve the lives of girls and women, including through community-change sessions with an open agenda.

Women and children in a medical tent in Herat province. Photo/Christopher Lee/Supplied

Facilitators encourage the women attending to put their issues on the table – forced child marriage and domestic violence quickly emerge as areas of concern. The women get to know about their legal rights and the real risks to children of early marriage and pregnancy.

The community change discussion I witness shows that women want to talk about all these issues. They seem eager for the chance to learn to read and be able to work outside the home and want their children to be able to go to school.

These are basic things we take for granted in New Zealand. Although public schooling in Afghanistan is now free, many children from poor families can’t attend because they can’t afford the necessary school supplies, their labour is needed to bring in income for the family or they have to care for small children while their mother works.

Beekeeper Sheet Gol, whose honey production has been hit by drought. Photo/Christopher Lee/Supplied

A women’s market

In the capital of Bādghīs province, Qala-e-Naw, I visit a ground-breaking women’s market. Previously, women worked in their homes – for example, sewing, baking or hairdressing. They were dependent on men selling their produce. Now, in the safe space of the dedicated market, dozens of stalls are spread over three floors where women meet, produce and trade.

Many of these women are illiterate and are heads of households. Their aspirations are to educate their children and lift their families’ living standards.

World Vision, funded by the public and governments in a number of countries, is supporting livelihood projects, including in non-traditional areas such as beekeeping. I meet women in a village outside the town equipped in their gear for extracting honey and see their honey for sale in the women’s market.

Camps occupied by Afghans fleeing drought. Photo/Christopher Lee/Supplied

Herat and Bādghīs provinces are among those badly hit by severe drought over the past two years. As livestock died and stored food ran out, more than a quarter of a million people in those two provinces alone walked off their land and came to tents and crude shelters on the edge of the cities.

Life is far from easy there. I visit a hospital next to a large tented settlement where World Vision staffs the intensive-care ward for severely malnourished babies and small children. It is heartbreaking to see a five-month-old weighing 2.8kg and a badly malnourished baby with a cleft palate and little prospect of having corrective surgery.

Halima Arbabzada, 13, who is set to marry an older man. Photo/Christopher Lee/Supplied

Kids working on the streets

All the pressures on families lead to thousands of children working on the streets of towns and cities. World Vision has set up a centre for these children where, with their caregiver’s permission, they come for a few hours a week to get training in basic life skills and access to health and other services such as tutoring.

I sit with a group that is role-playing with a facilitator on how to stay safe on the streets – these children are at risk of exploitation. In one family we visit, nine-year-old Younis shows us a scar on his body. He was a street worker who was taken to a clinic – the location of the scar suggests that one of his kidneys has been removed for organ trafficking. It is hard to overstate these children’s vulnerability.

Women at an “empowerment” clinic. Photo/Christopher Lee/Supplied

There are no quick solutions to the problems Afghanistan and its people face. Yet on this trip I saw many practical ways in which support can be given that will transform lives and lift hopes: community-change sessions where women learn about their rights, support for education for children and for adults who never had a chance before, support for the creation of basic livelihoods and markets, health services giving severely malnourished children the chance to live, and support for families to return to their land after a drought. All these things matter to people.

I saw how much can be done if we invest in development. I saw that change and hope are possible. Women empowered through education and through economic independence are the agents of change for their societies. Let us resolve to support them.

If you want to help

This article was first published in the April 27, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.