Afghanistan: The high cost of Bride Price

The high cost of walwar, or bride price, is preventing many young men and women from getting married.
Nahida, not her real name, just got engaged. But this has not been a joyful event in the 20-year-old’s life. Instead, she is considering suicide. “I am being forced to marry a 60-year-old man,” she said. “My father beat me until I agreed, and then he beat me again until I stopped crying in front of my ‘fiancé’s’ relatives. He got 10,000 [US] dollars from the old man and bought a car, then leased a piece of land. He has sold me, and I do not know what to do!”
Nahida’s father had profited from the tradition of walwar, or bride price, which is a sum that prospective grooms must pay to the fathers of their intended brides. The money is supposed to be spent on household goods for the newlyweds, but is often taken by the girl’s family for their own needs.

In recent years, walwar has climbed to unprecedented levels, to the point where many young men can no longer afford to marry. The result, say observers, is that girls either remain single or are given to older, richer men instead.

“If I do not ask a high walwar for my daughter, people will think there is something wrong with her,” Abdul Hamid, a father of four girls in Daulatabad district of Balkh, said. “She will not be respected by her in-laws.”

In the north, walwar is now between 10,000-15,000 dollars. Elders are blaming local gunmen, who make handsome profits from drugs, guns, and extortion, for the steep inflation.

“Commanders have a lot of money,” Hamid said. “And a father knows that if a commander asks for his daughter’s hand, he cannot refuse. If he tries, the commander will just take her by force. So he asks for as much money as possible.”

The severe drought that has blighted the north in recent years has also contributed to rising bride prices.

Farmers are in serious difficulties, and unemployment has soared as agricultural jobs have gone. So many families are trying to make up the difference by charging as high a walwar as the market will bear.

Maulawi Abdul Qahar, an imam in Balkh province, told IWPR that the excessive amounts charged for walwar are unacceptable in Islam.

“Mahar is allowed in Islam, but not walwar,” he said.

Mahar is a sum of money that the groom gives his bride-to-be’s father to symbolise his readiness to take on support of his new family.

While the minimum mahar is no more than the equivalent of a few cents, "the maximum should not be an economic blow to the other side”, Maulawi said.

Ahmad Saqib, 28, teaches English at the Hazrat Omar Farooq High School in Balkh. He worries constantly about being able to afford a wife.

“Walwar in our area has reached 12,000 dollars, which makes the total cost of a wedding more than 20,000 dollars. My salary is only 100 dollars per month, which is not enough even for my living expenses, so how am I supposed to get married?” he said.

Girls, meanwhile, are suffering from lack of potential grooms.

Fatima is 34, and still living in her father’s house in Charbolak district.

“My father is a tyrant,” she complained. “He will let me get married. I have received many proposals, but when my father tells them that he wants between 10,000 – 15,000 dollars in walwar, they leave and do not come back.”

The financial burden means that wealthy older men can often marry very young girls. This leads to conflict and unhappiness, say human rights activists, but there is little they can do.

“We are conducting educational workshops,” said Fawzia Nawabi, regional head of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. “We are using the mullahs, the police and the army to begin public outreach.”

According to Nawabi, many young men appeal to the commission for help in resolving the walwar issue, but it is difficult to mediate.

“Over the past six years, we have had 27 cases where people have come to us, and we have managed to resolve only three of them,” she said.

Halima Sadat, deputy director of the Women’s Affairs NGO in Balkh, also says that her organisation is all but powerless in such cases.

“We have not been able to do much about walwar,” she acknowledged. One possible solution was group weddings, she added, a practice that is catching on among the area’s Shia communities, but unpopular with Sunni, who see it is a cultural import from Iran. (see: Sunni Take Dim View of Shiia Mass Weddings, ARR 317, 26 March 2009)

“We have public outreach programmes that try to attract couples to the idea of group weddings,” she said. “We are going to work with the mullahs to help educate people about this.”

But for now, young men who want to marry will try almost anything to get the necessary funds together. Often they leave the country in search of better paying jobs, and sometimes they do not return.

“My 18-year-old son, Saleem, went to Iran after he got engaged to make some money for his wedding, but that was seven years ago,” said Rahman Gul, a resident of Nangahar Province. “There has been no sign of him since. I finally decided to marry his fiancée off to his younger brother.”

The problem has become so acute that in one village in Ghazni, a southern province, elders have set legal limits on walwar.

“So many boys and girls could not marry at the right age,” said Hajji Mohammad Rassoul, an elder of Rowza village in Ghazni.

Rowza is about five kilometres east of the provincial capital, and has roughly 3500 households. Most of the residents are engaged in business or agriculture.

The village elders have set the ceiling for walwar at 150,000 afghani (3,000 dollars). The decision has proved so popular that many people are asking that it be adopted throughout the province.

“It is not only the elders who have supported the decision, it has also been welcomed by Ulema (Council of Religious Scholars),” said Hajji Rassoul.

Abdul Latif, a mullah in Rowza, told IWPR that many young couples had married following the decision to limit walwar.

“People are very happy about this,” he said. “It is going to be announced in all the mosques of the village. If any violates the decision, he or she will be fined 20,000 afghani.”

The elders were also trying to cut down on lavish wedding parties by limiting the amount that young men could spend, said Mullah Latif.

“After this decision was adopted I participated in more than 70 weddings, and all the young couples were very happy,” he said.

Mohammad Ishaq, 30, is recently married, thanks to the edlers’decision.

“I am a driver,” he said. “There was no way I could afford a high bride price. But when they limited walwar to 150,000, I was able to marry the girl I wanted. I am quite pleased with my life now.”

26 April 2009

By Mohammad Zamir Sapai and Wahidullah Omaryar, who are IWPR trainees in Balkh and Ghazni respectively.

Source: IWPR