Jabbar used to be a normal adolescent, dreaming about his future. He wanted to go to university, become a professional, make a better life for himself and his family. But that was before his parents decided to sell off all of their possessions and use the proceeds to buy Jabbar a wife.
Jabbar was born in Badghis, in northern Afghanistan. His father died before he was born, but his mother remarried, and Jabbar’s stepfather, Haidar, was a kind man who treated Jabbar as his own. The family was relatively prosperous, with a house, a farm, and some livestock. Jabbar was going to school and planning to become an engineer.
But when age and illness forced his stepfather to sell the farm and move to Kabul, Jabbar saw his dreams of a bright future come crashing down.
“There were more problems in Kabul than the village where we lived in Badghis, so I decided to quit school and I started working,” he said.
In Kabul, Jabbar works as a mason’s assistant, from 7:30 in the morning until 5:30 in the evening. For this backbreaking work he brings in 200 afghani (about $3.00) per day.
“We have a large number of employees who stay here all day, every day,” said Mohammad Shafi, Jabbar’s employer. “We give them food and provide them with accommodation ,and pay them 400–700 afs per day. But when I saw Jabbar for the first time I knew that he was in trouble. I told him ‘you are a small boy, nobody will hire you as an employee, just help my workers with some easy tasks and I will pay you some money.”
So instead of learning a profession, Jabbar spends all day as a low-level laborer.
“Now it seems that my biggest ambition, which was to be an engineer, is just in my dreams,” he laments.
One evening Jabbar came home to find his parents talking about getting him engaged. They had decided to pay all the 600,000 afs that they received from their farm, shop and cows as a bride-price, known as walwar, to the girl’s family.
This seemed like madness to Jabbar.
“We could have had a good business with the money my father paid to my in-laws, but instead, my father acted upon my mother’s instructions,” he said.
Even after the deal was struck, Jabbar thought he had several years before the wedding actually took place. But no such luck.
“A few months later my father took me to Badghis and we had our Nekah (the marriage ceremony),” he said.
Haidar, Jabbar’s stepfather, justifies his decision: “I am a old man, and I am not sure how much longer I will live,” he told Paiwandgāh.
“I wanted to see my sons married before I die. Therefore I spent what I had for Jabbar’s marriage.”
Now a husband, Jabbar has responsibilities. He has to work to support his family — his parents his wife, who is 14, and his future children. And he still only 13 years old.
But his problems are much worse than he originally thought. His stepfather now wants to arrange a marriage for Jabbar’s younger brother, Sarwar, now 12.
This marriage will be even more expensive: 700,000 afghani.
Sarwar is also working as a laborer, making roughly the same amount as Jabbar. Haidar brings in about 300 afghani per day doing odd jobs. With a combined income of 700 afghani (about $12) per day, it will take a long time to raise the money.
Jabbar’s father says that the walwar is Jabbar’s responsibility. Now that he has spent all of his money for Jabbar’s wedding, he said, Jabbar must come up with the funds for his brother.
“When I see the other children of my age who go to school I also think about going,” he said. “But then I say to myself ‘no matter that I myself could not study, but I will send my children to school and will give them everything they need.’”
According to Article 70 of the Afghan Civil Code, the legal age for marriage is 18 for boys, 16 for girls. But this law is widely disregarded, with almost 20 percent of girls married before their 16th birthday.
Still, the government is unwilling, or unable, to do much about it.
“According to Sharia Law and the (Constitution of Afghanistan it is completely illegal to force children to get married before reaching to their legal age of marriage,” said Aaq Mohammad Noori, member of provincial council of Faryab. “The government of Afghanistan has not taken action in this regard. Even though the Independent Human Rights Commission has conducted many workshops for school teachers, mullahs and tribal leaders, it could not help change this negative tradition in northern Afghanistan.”