Female Runaways on the Rise in Afghan Province

Officials in the northeastern Afghan province of Panjshir are warning that the number of girls and young women running away from home, often to escape forced marriage, is on the rise.

Tahmina Rezayee, legal officer at Panjshir’s department of women’s affairs, said that her office had logged 21 instances of women running away from home in the first five months of 2018. In the same period last year, they had recorded only seven such cases.

“When parents force their daughters to marry someone whom they don’t like, this makes the girl run away,” she said, warning that the number of runaways would only increase if such marriage practices continued.

Under Afghan law, women and girls who run away from home can be put in prison for up to a year, and the shame associated with such cases means their families sometimes refuse to take them back.

In conservative Afghan society, many decisions about a woman’s future are taken by male family members. But sometimes young couples fall in love and try to run away together.

Panjshir resident Ahmad Jawad, 23, told IWPR that he had been courting a girl from the same village for the last year. Matters came to a head in January, when her family tried to marry her off to someone else.

“The girl also loved me and said to her family that she wanted to get engaged, to me but her family did not agree. When her family wanted to betroth her to someone else, she ran away with me,” he said.

Jawad said that they had been prevented from performing the nikah, the Islamic marriage ceremony, from fear of creating a feud between the two families.

“The girl is being hosted by a local elder, and elders are negotiating to try and convince her family to allow our betrothal.”

Sometimes mediation leads to a positive resolution. Shamsia, a 20-year-old from Logar province, met Jamshid when they were both studying law and political science at Kabul University.

“My family wanted to marry me to an old man; this made me run away from home in 2017,” she said, explaining that the couple had fled to Panjshir. “After two months, once my family agreed, I married him [Jamshid], and we now live a happy life.”

Provincial spokesman Abdul Wadod Alimardan confirmed that the number of female runaways had increased, adding, “Their cases are settled by the judicial institutions, through the department of women’s affairs.”

Dozens of other cases were resolved informally through local elders, he continued.

Rezayee also said that female runaways were usually hosted by tribal elders until their cases were resolved through traditional justice procedures, but said that the government should also provide refuges for vulnerable women and girls.

Despite several requests to the ministry of women’s affairs, she said that no action had been taken to provide safe houses.

Abdul Ahad Farzam is the head of the Kabul regional office of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), covering seven provinces including Kapisa, Parwan, Panjshir, Logar, Maidan Wardak and Ghazni.

He said that his department had registered 108 cases of women or girls running away from home last year, but said the true number was likely to be far higher.

“Insecurity, problematic social traditions and the intervention of powerful individuals meant that many cases are resolved unofficially,” he said, adding that running away from home was “a serious social issue and can have immense consequences both for the female runaways and their families”.

Islamic law gives women the right to choose their own husband and forbids forced marriage. But in practice, customary law often takes precedence.

Legal expert Abdul Mujeeb Fana explained that the issue of runaways could even lead to the practice of “baad” a traditional means of settling disputes in Afghanistan which involves giving a young girl to the family of the perceived victim of a crime. 

“In some cases, running away from home causes social issues that leads to feuds between families, and such antagonism eventually leads to providing the boy’s family with a bride, a baad marriage, which is haram [forbidden] in Islam.”

 “In cases where a young man and woman decided to run away together,” he continued, “They bring their case to a court for the purpose of marriage. The court gives them a three-day time period so that they can also bring their families. If they fail to do so, then the judge, subject to their mutual agreement, will perform their nikah.”