Most girls dream about about falling in love, getting married in a beautiful dress, and having a family. But for thousands of young Afghan girls, and millions more across Asia and Africa, marriage often comes before they are old enough for such dreams -- and ends in nightmare.
Torpekay, for example, is an Afghan girl from western Herat Province. Although just 17, she has been married for four years.
Torpekay tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that becoming a wife at the tender age of 13, being forced to serve her husband's family, and having virtually no say in her own life have taken a heavy toll on her. So heavy, she says, that she tried to escape -- by taking her own life.
She survived the attempt, and has been recovering at a local hospital. "I was so angry that I wanted to kill myself," she says, asking that her surname not be used. "I didn't have a knife, I didn't have any drug to inject into myself, so I decided to set myself on fire. Using gasoline was the easiest way."
The issue of child marriages, which affect more than 50 million girls worldwide according to the United Nations, was thrust back in the headlines recently when the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) selected its "Photo of 2007." The winning shot, by American photographer Stephanie Sinclair, shows a 40-year-old Afghan man, Mohammad, sitting next his visibly horror-stricken fiancee, Ghulam. She is barely 11 years old.
"We needed the money," Ghulam's parents, from Ghor Province, were quoted as saying.
UNICEF says child marriages are a reaction to extreme poverty. They mainly take place in Asian and African regions where poor families see daughters as a burden and as second-class citizens. The girls are given into the "care" of a husband, and many of them end up abused. Morever, they are often under pressure to bear children, but the risk of death during pregnancy or childbirth for girls under 14 is five times higher than for adult women.
Still Clutching Toys
According to UNICEF, 57 percent of Afghan marriages involve girls under 16. Women's activists say up to 80 percent of marriages in the country are either forced or arranged. And the problem is particularly acute in poverty-stricken rural areas.
In such places, many girls are forced into marriages when they are as young as nine or 10, says Khatema Mosleh of the Afghan Women's Network (AWN), a nonpartisan group of organizations that campaign for women's rights in Afghanistan. Most marry far older men -- some in their 60s -- whom they meet for the first time at their wedding.
So young are some girls, Mosleh says, that they hold onto their toys during the wedding ceremony. And they usually become mothers in their early teens, while they are still children themselves.
"When we speak with girls who married very young, they usually say, 'It feels like we didn't have a life, we didn't have childhood,'" Mosleh says. "These girls don't even remember their wedding day because they were so young. They say, 'We had a wedding, but we didn't even understand what the ceremony meant.'"
Women and children's rights activists in Afghanistan say the marriages are imposed on young girls for a variety of reasons.
In Afghan villages, it's considered dishonorable for families for daughters to meet and date boys. Some parents try to marry their daughters as soon as possible to avoid such a prospect. A lack of security during more than three decades of war, and the risk of kidnapping and rape, has also prompted many families to force their young daughters into marriage. And widespread poverty still compels many parents to get their daughters married to avoid the cost of caring for them.
According to Mosleh, most men who marry young girls are much older and wealthier, and they pay significant amounts of money to the families of the young brides.
Young marriages have contributed to high rates of death among women, infant mortality, and particularly maternal deaths. At 44, an Afghan woman's life expectancy is one of the lowest in the world.
Badriya Hassas, a gynecologist in Rabiya Balkhi Hospital in Kabul, says that shortly after being married, many young girls are admitted to hospital in a state of shock from serious physical injuries and psychological trauma. "Some of these girls suffer irreversible physical damage," Hassas tells RFE/RL. "They suffer from tearing and extensive bleeding. Besides, they usually come to hospital too late -- after massive bleeding, and in a state of shock. We have personally seen many such cases."
Sami Hashemi, an expert at UNICEF's Kabul office, says it is a tragedy for Afghan society that "young girls who are supposed to be thinking about toys, books, and cartoons are being forced to become wives, to serve their husbands' families, and bear a child."
The Afghan government has taken some steps to tackle the problem. The country has recently changed the legal age for marriage for girls from 16 to 17. Men who want to marry girls under 17 are not entitled to obtain a marriage certificate, although rights activists say many men simply do not bother with officially registering their marriages.
Local NGOs and their international partners have also started an awareness campaign throughout the country to promote children's rights to education and self-determination.
Mosleh says many parents, teachers, and local leaders take part in workshops and meetings organized by her and other NGOs in Afghanistan's remote towns and villages. But she and other activists harbor few illusions: It will take years, perhaps a generation, to root out the tradition of child marriages.
(RFE/RLs Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this report)