In Taliban’s wake, more Afghans say marriage can wait

A Pashtun girl stands outside her family home June 3, 2010 in Walakhan, a village south of Kandahar, Afghanistan. (Credit: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

Attitudes on child marriage and education have changed significantly in Afghanistan’s most underdeveloped regions since the overthrow of the Taliban, a study finds.

The study, which appears in the Journal of Adolescent Health, includes interviews with nearly 1,400 Afghans ages 12-15 and their parents, all in relatively poor rural districts of the country.

In just one generation, the responses indicated, getting married in childhood and leaving school early have become much less favored options. Virtually all adolescent respondents were unmarried, and about 75 percent were still in school—in contrast to their parents, who commonly married in their mid-teens and usually had no formal education.

“This study was conducted in some of the most educationally and socially disadvantaged provinces in Afghanistan,” says senior author Robert Blum, professor of population, family, and reproductive health at the Johns Hopkins University, “and yet we found that there have been remarkably positive shifts in attitudes among boys and girls and their parents.”

Liberalizing influences

At the time of the Taliban’s defeat by US-led forces in 2002, early marriage and minimal formal education were norms in rural Afghanistan. The United Nations Development Program estimated an average of just 6.5 years of school. Girls in particular were discouraged from pursuing much formal schooling, and frequently ended their brief education by getting married.

The fall of the Taliban allowed modern, liberalizing influences into Afghanistan, from television and the internet to global nongovernmental organizations. Blum and colleagues at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Heath undertook their study to get a better picture of how cultural attitudes have changed.

Experienced Afghan social researchers conducted surveys in Kandahar and five other rural provinces, some of which still experience Taliban insurgent activity. Insurgents in Badghis province twice tried unsuccessfully to capture the research team.

Wait to marry?

The final sample that the team used for analysis included 910 Afghans ages 12-15 and 454 parents. Most boys and girls indicated that they consider education valuable, not just for themselves but also for the other gender. The parents, though they mostly had no formal education themselves (66 percent of the men, 93 percent of the women), were also virtually unanimous in indicating that they expect their children—both boys and girls—to complete high school at least.

As for child marriage, about 38 percent of parents indicated that daughters should postpone marriage until after high school, while about 32 percent would be supportive of earlier marriage. Fathers were more likely to advocate postponement (51 percent) than mothers (28 percent). The parents’ attitudes suggest a shift from when they were teens themselves; their average age at marriage was just 16 for the women and 20 for the men.

Among young people interviewed, only six in the entire sample—all girls—were married. There seemed to be widespread awareness of the drawbacks of early marriage, including limits on future educational opportunity and increased risk of domestic violence for girls.

“Behaviors tend to change more slowly than attitudes, but attitudes are the precursors of behavioral change and I think there is a lot here to inspire optimism,” Blum says.

Domestic abuse

Somewhat less attitudinal change emerged in a second study on attitudes toward interpersonal violence. Based on the same interviews, this study appears online in the American Journal of Public Health.

Although large majorities of adolescents and parents said violent behaviors were unacceptable when researchers simply listed them, most did find them justifiable under specific circumstances. About 71 percent of adolescents considered it acceptable for a husband to hit his wife—if she went out without her husband, for example, or refused to have sex with him—though far fewer (48 percent) endorsed the idea of a wife hitting her husband.

Parents’ responses again closely matched their children’s: About 68 percent found acceptable, in at least one scenario, a husband beating his wife, and most also accepted parents hitting sons or daughters (71 percent) and teachers beating students (58 percent). Unexpectedly, wives were more likely than husbands to find justification for wife-beating (75 percent vs. 59 percent), while husbands were more likely than wives to justify husband-beating (44 percent vs. 35 percent).

The findings suggest a continuing need for programs starting in childhood to make Afghans less tolerant of interpersonal violence, the researchers say.

Support for the two studies came from the IKEA Foundation through the UN Children’s Fund and from the William H. Gates Sr. Professorial Endowment at Johns Hopkins.

Source: Johns Hopkins University