This Afghan Rapper Used Her Talent To Save Herself From Becoming A Child Bride
NEW DELHI: Sonita Alizadeh has a remarkable story. In 2014, when Sonita was 16, her mother told her she would be married off for $9,000, to help pay the dowry for her brother’s marriage. Distraught, Sonita turned to music, and the video “Brides For Sale” uploaded to YouTube as the result, changed her life forever.
This week, Sonita opened the 2016 New York Women in the World Summit. The summit began with her now famous song, with Sonita appearing on stage mid-verse, a mic gripped in one hand. When Sonita sings, her expressions are a mix of hurt and defiance, as she remembers the journey that got her to this point.
Last year, Sonita’s story was featured at the London Women in the World Summit. At the time, she told BC jounralist and former child bride Zarghuna Kargar of her mother's first attempt to sell her, adding that the experience was like 'dress-up'. “I wasn’t sad then because I didn’t know what she was talking about,” Sunita said, recalling the first time her mother made plans to sell her -- when she was only 10 years old. “It was the first time [my parents] focused on me and they bought me new clothes,” she remembered.
Sonita was lucky. In addition to her talent, her family were able to escape Afghanistan and migrate to Iran. It was here that Sonita had to deal with the pressures of possibly becoming a child bride, sold to the highest bidder. Her family’s plans to marry her off when she was 10 fortunately fell through, with Sonita being an older 16 by the time a suitable match was found.
As she turned to music to channel her distress, Iranian filmmaker Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami, who had been filming Sonita for what she thought would be an immigration story, paid Sonita’s family $2,000 so she could remain in Iran a few more months and helped Sonita produce the music video for “Brides for Sale.”
The song changed her life as it attracted international attention, and enabled Sonita to escape child marriage by securing a scholarship to study music in the United States. “My music was a nightmare for her,” Sonita told the New York Times in reference to her mother. “Now she is one of my biggest fans.”
Part of Sonita’s story may be unique -- as not many women in Afghanistan can claim that a music career saved their lives. However, a large part of Sonita’s story is the everyday reality of many women in Afghanistan -- where forced marriages and trafficking are rampant.
A report by Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) noted that a majority of human trafficking victims in Afghanistan were girls who were married before reaching the legal age of marriage. 81 percent of the respondents of a survey conducted amongst trafficking victims by AIHRC in 20 of Afghanistan’s provinces said they were married before 18, and 50 percent were married when they were under 15. About 29 percent were forced into marriage after being raped, kidnapped or exposed to violence. There are numerous stories of girls in Afghanistan forced to marry their rapist, many of which follow a predictable cycle of the victim being forced into commercial sex work.
In addition to the factor of forced marriages, a majority of victims had been deprived of parental support. More than half the victim’s families had no stable source of income, while a third were trafficked after being tricked. Victims often speak of the fact that they have “no choice” given the economic deprivation, and a majority are forced into the trade by families - usually a husband or brother, or both.
15 year old Sahar Gull made headlines when the Baghlan province police found her imprisoned in her in-law’s ramshackled cellar. Sahar had been forced into marriage, and had been imprisoned, tortured and violently beaten by her husband and his family for refusing to work as a prostitute.
In a country that has become notorious for violence against women, there are many cases similar to Sahar’s, most of which will remain unknown and unheard of. Most perpetrators of violence against women are not prosecuted, and the AIHRC survey with victims of trafficking noted that only 17 percent of the respondents had reported the arrest of a perpetrator, while only 13 percent of those knew of their perpetrator being punished.
Reporting perpetrators is complicated given that conservative laws in Afghanistan may be used to prosecute the woman for having sex outside of marriage rather than protect her as victim of abuse who has been coerced into the trade. Human Rights Watch had released a report on women who were in Afghanistan’s prisons for “moral crimes,” of which many had been forced into prostitution by husbands and in-laws.
Stories like Sonita’s, therefore, are all the more important so as to shed some light on the plight of thousands of Afghan girls.