Afghanistan is a country where in most cases, by the time you’re a 10-year old boy, you’re expected to be a man. As someone who comes from one of the poorest countries in the world and living/working in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, I find it frustrating to know that while Afghanistan has enough natural resources and young population to make it one of the most robust economies in the region, we seem to be unable to break some of our traditions at the micro-level of marriage and building families that are keeping us away from prospects of economic prosperity – specifically, the bad habit of parents marrying their children off young.
A few weeks ago, there was a report in the Afghan media about group weddings being held in Kabul to avoid costly individual wedding parties. One of the grooms in the report said, “…my religion is now complete after marriage.” When it comes to marriage life, my personal rule is very simple – If you can’t afford a wedding party, don’t have one – or better yet, don’t get married. I also believe that you have to have your own life, before you have a wife. Keeping that in mind, I continually advocate against marriage in discussions amongst family members and Afghans who continue to push for people to get married.
Afghans never shy away from getting very personal with you even if you’re a complete stranger. In an Afghan wedding I attended in London many years ago, a gentleman sitting next to me asked if I was married, I responded ‘no’ – his next question was about my age and when I told him my age, he commented without hesitation that I should get married as it is a ‘good’ thing. Of course, knowing the Afghan customs, I wasn’t offended by neither his comment nor his personally intrusive questions about my marital status. Many years later after I had lived and worked in Australia and returned back to Afghanistan, one of my colleagues asked if I’m married, I said ‘no’ – his follow-up question was, ‘…have you ever been married?’ – My answer was still ‘no’. His follow-up question and the look on his face made me realize that as an Afghan, I’ve reached an age where people start questioning your sexual orientation if you’re single, not married, and never been married before.
Sex, Family Planning & Child Marriages
The subject of sex remains a taboo in the Afghan public. I’m not sure what explanation parents give to their children if they’re ever asked by their kids on how they’re born. When it comes to sexual education in schools, I don’t know of any institutions where teenagers are openly educated about sex (the good, the bad and the ugly side of sex) and the importance of family planning (use of condoms and why it is absolutely necessary for teenagers to understand that planning a family should be a pre-requisite part of marriage life). Majority of Afghans seem to be continuing to repeat the same cycle as that of their parents or that of what others do: going to school, finding a job and getting married. For as long as we have teenagers who are fresh out of school and 20-something year olds who are just trying to figure out what life is all about, Afghanistan is bound to keep getting the same result where the newer generations find themselves drowned in responsibilities and where, otherwise pleasurable experiences, feel like a burden.
We do see a trend in a very small portion of the country’s population where the younger generations are earning money and are wealthier than their parents’ generation but this is an exception since education is still a privilege very few fortunate one’s enjoy in the country. Moreover, not everyone gets education that can qualify them for the very little job opportunities that are available as a result of the presence of international aid agencies, embassies and a small, but a growing, number of locally owned businesses. One measure of growth in the country is measuring the growth in economic prosperity of younger generations in comparison to their predecessors.
By marrying their children off very young, we keep seeing young Afghans stuck in a situation where even if they have a job, their responsibilities are tenfold: apart from caring for spouse and children, they take care of their parents and in some cases that of their spouse’s parents too, supporting younger siblings with their school, paying for medical expenses or other expenses of extended family members. In other words, the one person who is fortunate enough to be the most educated and have a recurring income ends up bearing most of the financial responsibilities. This circle of lifestyle isn’t allowing many young and capable Afghans to reach their true potential in achieving the maximum that a small market of opportunities that Afghanistan has to offer.
Perhaps it’s time for a push for education in family planning and the need to stop marrying young. Over time, I hope this will change the traditionally ingrained beliefs that we have to have a certain age limit beyond which it’s not a norm to get married and develop an understanding that as education levels and exposure to the outside world increases, so will people’s ambitions and focus on building a career when and where possible.
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