Childhood under assault
Part 1: Benesh, Afghanistan
Girls and boys deserve to grow up free from abuse and exploitation. But in the world’s most dangerous places, childhood is frequently the first casualty. Here is Benesh's story, the first in our 10-part series
Warning: descriptions of violence experienced by children.
“That man there is your husband.”
He towers over his young wife. She is pregnant with their second child.
Some would say he deserves to be happily married. For years, he fought the Taliban as a member of the Afghan army. His body is covered with bullet scars.
His wife wasn’t cheap. She cost the equivalent of $4000 CDN, but so far, has been well worth the money. She’s compliant—almost like a daughter. And hard-working. She cooks, cleans and sews clothes for the family.
He barely had to wait for his first son—she was just 12 when giving birth. In a few short months, she’ll provide him with another child.
Her name is Benesh*, and she’s 14 years of age.
No one has considered what she deserves: school, innocence, playtime with friends. Not a second pregnancy and a rapidly growing belly.
Benesh, 14, stands with her husband of close to 4 years. They are visiting a World Vision mobile health clinic. Benesh is pregnant with her second child. Photo: Brett Tarver
Irony that hurts
She wishes there weren’t so many babies, so very soon. She asked the woman who delivered her first baby—a traditional birth attendant—about contraception.
“It exists, but you’re too young to take it,” said the woman. Too young for contraception. But not too young to conceive, carry, deliver and raise two children. The irony is heartbreaking.
So many things about Benesh's young life have been unfair.
She was born in a region of Afghanistan riddled with conflict and depleted by severe drought. Jobs are scarce. Agriculture is the country’s main resource, for commercial and subsistence farming. And the dry dirt just hasn’t been giving.
When parents can’t provide for their families, selling a daughter can be a smart financial move. A good ‘bride price’ might settle years of family debt, buy materials to rebuild your house, or feed all your other kids for a year.
It’s your daughter who loses everything: her family, her education, her childhood.
No one said goodbye
No one told Benesh she was being sold. No one said goodbye. No parting words of wisdom about sex, pregnancy and childbirth. Benesh thought she was going on a picnic with this strange man and his extended family. Except they never brought her home again.
“There was no wedding ceremony or party,” says Benesh. “The new people kept telling me they were my parents now. ‘And that man there is your husband’, they said.” She would never go home to her family.
“I couldn’t stop crying,” she remembers. “They took me to the neighbours’ house to cheer me up. There was a garden and some girls for me to play with.”
When Benesh became pregnant at age 12, she had no idea what was happening. “I felt sick and had headaches,” she says. “They took me to a doctor, who said I had a baby inside. He said my belly would get very round. I was afraid.”
She gave birth at home, with the traditional birth attendant. Thankfully, both Benesh and her son survived what might seem physically impossible, given that Benesh's body was still so undeveloped. He was born alive. She too remained alive.
Her second child will be born in the camp for internally displaced people where Benesh and her husband now live. Drought had made life in their village impossible. There was nothing to eat, no way to earn money.
Glimmers of hope
There’s a World Vision medical clinic at the camp. Here, Benesh is receiving checkups, and learning about things like healthcare during pregnancy, birth spacing and contraception. Mercifully, through contact with the clinic, her husband has come to agree that some family planning is needed.
At the World Vision mobile health clinic 14-year-old Benesh receives prenatal care. Photo: Brett Tarver
As we spoke to Benesh with the help of a translator, her small face remained calm and resigned. She smiled only when talking of her parents. Or when asked of her dreams for her new child, should that baby be a daughter.
“I want her to be educated and not like me, an illiterate person,” she said. “I would allow her to grow up and decide whether to get married or not.”
We asked Benesh what she would tell her own parents, should they meet again. Her husband was listening from just a few feet away—yet Benesh's answer had an edge of steel.
“I would tell my parents they shouldn’t have married me off,” she said.
It was clear Benesh was rarely asked for her opinion. For when invited to share her personal views, this young mother lit up from the inside.
Just imagine what she could have achieved in a classroom.
In Afghanistan, most young girls know about the traditional ways of arranging marriage. But that doesn’t lessen the devastation when a union is planned for them.
Like girls and women here in Canada, most Afghan girls still desperately want to decide when, whether, and to whom they get married.
Esin, 13, was devastated when she learned her father's plans for her to marry. Photo: Brett Tarver
The father of 13-year-old Esin* wasn’t planning to give her those choices. Esin learned about her marriage by accident, overhearing her father talking on the phone. He was out of work, with serious health issues. And a bride price equivalent to more than $10,000 CDN was a tempting solution to the family’s financial struggles.
“I heard him making the arrangements and I cried and cried,” Esin remembers. “I immediately went to my mother and told her, ‘I don’t want to be married! I knew that in the village I was going to, there would be no school and no future for me.”
The education difference
Esin is fortunate. World Vision teams are working in her community, helping break the cycle of child marriage
that’s existed for centuries.
World Vision started a network of community change groups, to teach about children’s rights, as well as the dangers of child marriage and child pregnancy. Moms, daughters, dad, sons, religious leaders and community elders attend the meetings.
Esin's mom is one of them. When she told her community change group about her husband’s plans for Esin, her fellow members encouraged her to intervene.
Community change groups like this one teach about children’s rights, as well as the dangers of child marriage and child pregnancy. Photo: Brett Tarver
She summoned her courage, broke with generations of tradition, and urged her husband to reconsider. Esin's dad initially refused to stop the marriage. But he relented when other group members—including community elders—added their pressure.
Esin's family is still in serious financial need. But her mom has begun washing clothes and cleaning homes to earn money—to keep her daughter unmarried and in school. “I love math and want to be either a doctor or an engineer,” says Esin.
Even in the world’s toughest places, World Vision is teaching families and communities about the right of every girl to make her own decisions about marriage. And the girls themselves are often the greatest advocates of all.
“I tell my friends about what happened,” said Esin, “so they know their right not to get married.”
Esin and Benesh will likely never meet in person, but perhaps their paths will intersect in other ways.
Maybe the voice that Esin's finding, and the changes for which she’s advocating, will help clear the path for Benesh's daughters. To decide when, whether and with whom they enter marriage.
To attend school, finish university and go on to pursue their dreams. Together, we can help make it possible.
Global poverty is in retreat but has become more concentrated in the world’s darkest places. Over the next decade, more than 80 per cent of the world’s poorest children and families will live in the most dangerous places where lives and futures are threatened by conflict and disaster. Join the movement and take action against injustice. Learn how you can help.
*Name changed to protect her identity.