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Elopement or kidnapping? A love story in Afghanistan

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Family response unit counsellors and staff attend a training on case management for gender-based violence, held by UNFPA. © UNFPA Afghanistan

KABUL, Afghanistan – When Nabila, 23, fell in love with the young man next door, their romance was destined to be complicated. Nabila’s hand in marriage was already promised to her cousin, a common practice in their Afghan community.

Marriage is a critical rite of passage in Afghanistan – not just for those getting married, but for their families. Parents, and sometimes other relatives, play a key role in deliberating over potential matches.

In some cases, the bride or groom can have a say in the decision-making process. But in other cases marriages are arranged for reasons unrelated to the happiness of the betrothed couple: a match may be made to strengthen family ties, settle debts or resolve disputes. In such arrangements, the bride and groom may have little influence over whom they marry.

Nabila’s neighbour, 26-year-old Salim, tried his luck anyway. He asked her family for permission to marry her. Nabila returned with bad news. Her parents had declined his offer.

To stay together, Nabila and Salim had only one option: to flee Kabul and elope. Yet marrying without the approval of one’s family can be extremely dangerous. The disobedience is widely seen as an affront to family honour, which can result in severe punishment by the family, community or local authorities. In some cases, one or both members of the couple can be harmed or killed.

In many communities, “eloping means turning your back on your family, which is the backbone of Afghan culture,” explained Sulaf Mustafa, a UNFPA gender specialist in Afghanistan. “Especially women in such circumstances are subjected to so-called honour killing when they choose to elope.”

Risking it all for love

Nabila and Salim fled to Nangarhar, where they were referred to a local religious leader who officiated at their wedding.

Though they were happy, they were also fearful about the future. Nabila’s family blamed Salim’s family for the couple’s disappearance, and both families were furious.

Nabila’s parents visited their local police precinct and approached the family response unit. Salim, they reported, had kidnapped their daughter.

But this is where the couple’s fortunes took an unexpected turn.

The family response unit, like 26 such units located in police stations around Afghanistan, is a UNFPA-supported programme providing legal support, family counselling, human rights information and referrals to health and social assistance.

Palwasha Talash, the head of the unit, was not about to let Nabila’s rights be undermined.

Her future, her choice

Nabila and Salim were quickly located. They returned to Kabul, where the criminal investigation department assessed whether any crime had taken place. They determined that Salim had not kidnapped Nabila, and that their marriage was voluntary and lawful.

But Ms. Talash knew that this would not resolve the families’ concerns. Nabila’s parents were still adamant that she marry her cousin.

“I explained that Nabila is an adult and should be able to choose her future,” Ms. Talash recalled. “Not letting her follow her heart violates her rights and this will have a negative impact on her future.”

Eventually, Nabila’s family relented. They and Salim’s family agreed to accept the union. Another wedding ceremony was held in December, this time with both families’ attendance and support.

No regrets

When officials, like Ms. Talash, are able to “handle gender-based violence cases properly, it has a direct life-saving impact on Afghanistan youth. The right to choose one’s spouse is a human right and is how we will build a more equitable future for the country,” Ms. Mustafa said.

Ms. Talash’s family response unit, and a number of others, are supported by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

In total, UNFPA’s family response units have been working since 2006 to protect the rights of women and girls. In 2020 alone, despite challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, these units responded to 1,514 cases.

As for Nabila, she feels confident she made the right choice. Not only is Salim the love of her life, he is also supportive of her hopes and ambitions. With his encouragement, she has enrolled in university.

“I want a safe life,” she told UNFPA. “I want my children to be educated. I want them to never be afraid to pursue their dreams. I want them to never be scared of standing up for what they believe in.”