Sweden Deports Victims of Child Marriage and Torture to Afghanistan

[Sweden] please just kill me. I would rather die than be sent back to Afghanistan.

Those are the roughly translated words of an 18-year-old refugee in Sweden who fled child marriage, violence and abuse. After 2 years of uncertainty in Sweden, she has just received a deportation order. She is to be sent back to the hell she fled from in Afghanistan. This young woman has learnt Swedish and wants no more than to give back to her new society. She wants peace, freedom and safety.

Sweden has a long reputation for taking strides in humanity, gender equality and human rights. In 2014, Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt called upon Swedes to open their hearts to the surge of refugees arriving in Europe. Yet, in the past years Sweden has reversed its stance, closing its borders and limiting the options for asylum seekers to stay in the country. Nils Muiznieks, Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, is concerned about these developments. Read his 2018 report on Sweden.

Sweden is sending civilian asylum seekers back to war torn Afghanistan, even as insecurity has increased in recent years.

A new UN report documents 2018 as the year with the highest recorded number of civilians killed in the Afghan conflict. The report also shows the increased toll of the conflict on children.

To make matters worse, Sweden is also sending back refugees who face grave risks should they return to Afghanistan. This includes girls who have fled child marriage, young LGBTQ individuals, and those who have converted from Islam.

Sweden can no longer take a prize as a leader for human rights, if this torture continues within our borders. Many refugees who receive deportation decisions arrived in Sweden as minors and have lived in the country for years. Many have learned to speak the language, and built networks through schools, churches, sports clubs and human rights organizations. However, these asylum seekers are not believed or deemed trustworthy as they tell their stories to Swedish authorities.

Many suffer from ill mental health due to the uncertainty of their lives and the many risks they face.

Karolinska Institutet released a report in February 2018 showing the alarming number of suicides among refugees in Sweden. The suicide rate among unaccompanied refugees up to the age of 21 was 51.2 per 100,000 in 2017, compared to 5.2 per 100,000 among the same age group of the general population in 2016. If these frightening statistics are not evidence of stories of war, torture and abuse, I don’t know what is.

Desperate to avoid deportation, some turn to the media to tell their stories. This increases the risk of being found by their perpetrators and family members. The ones who believe they deserve to be killed in the name of honor for leaving their marriages or religion.

Sweden cannot take a prize as one of the best countries for women, either. That statement only refers to women of privilege and women who already live in safety. If Sweden deports girls (and boys) who have been victims of child marriage in Afghanistan, we are not acknowledging the human rights violation that affects 35% of girls. We are ignoring the fact that these refugees lack the support networks they need to avoid abuse and violence upon returning.

In the Joint Way Forward agreement between the EU and the Islamic State of Afghanistan it is agreed that: “Unaccompanied minors are not to be returned without successful tracing of family members or without adequate reception and care-taking arrangements having been put in place in Afghanistan.”

As child marriage is an institution built by families, the family is not a safe space to be returned to.

This also applies to those who have come out as LGBTQ or who now identify as Christian. Death threats among these groups of refugees are commonplace and returning is not an option. What we need to do is believe them when they share their stories and use our privilege to advocate for them.

Sweden needs to act now to avoid sending people to face violence or even death in the name of honor.

Learn even more:

Politics Affects our Health: the Case of Sudan

‘Social determinants of health’ are the circumstances and surroundings that influence an individual’s health outcomes.

Researchers have focused on social determinants of health for decades and there is now a general consensus that higher socioeconomic status predicts better odds of future health and well-being. While this notion is scientifically accepted, it prompts the question: what creates these social determinants of health? This has brought much needed attention to the ways in which politics affect health – both directly and indirectly.

‘Political determinants of health’ are the factors that shape the social determinants of health. This is a relatively new concept and is of particular significance for women. An example of the link between politics and health can be found in Sudan.

In Sudan, the political climate is shaped by religion and the constitution is based on teachings of Sharia Law. Currently, many communities face extreme financial strain as a result of failed past politics and/or war and insecurity. This has increased pre-existing and vast social inequities, including gaps in financial and educational opportunities.

The political situation in Sudan has had inevitable consequences for health.

Social disadvantage falls heavier on women. Until recently, girls have been denied the same education as their male counterparts. Lack of education leads to limited knowledge of health, which affects an individual’s ability to improve their own health outcomes. 

One example is the issue of sexual and reproductive health. Sexuality and sexual behaviour are sensitive topics rarely discussed in conservative, religious cultures like Sudan’s. Sexual and reproductive health and rights do not enjoy a high-priority status among political agendas, either, and there has been very little consideration of introducing sexual education into classrooms. However, many educators and health officials have started to support sex education in schools, resulting in increasing support by legislators.

Another example is the high prevalence of female genital mutilation (FGM) in Sudan, at a prevalence of approximately 89% countrywide. The harmful practice continues to affect many areas of the country, and although it is legally banned, it is well-known to continue with the open support of many religious leaders. This is a clear example of failed implementation of legislation that has allowed FGM to remain prevalent despite wide-spread efforts by campaigns and NGO peer-education programs.

Under Sudanese constitution, child marriage, forced marriage or marital rape are not against the law.

Much of the country’s legislation does not provide any protection for women’s rights. As a result, many Sudanese women fear persecution.

One case that struck the international community was that of Noura Hussein in 2018. The 19-year-old was sentenced to death for fatally stabbing her husband – who she had allegedly been forced to marry – after he attempted to rape her. In the eyes of the law, marital rape does not exist, and so Hussein had no claims to self-defence as she was viewed as a belonging of her husband. The ruling was thankfully overturned after increasing international pressure on the Sudanese government. Hussein received a reduced sentence of 5 years in prison. 

Historically, women in Sudan have been forced to be subordinate to men. Although this is changing and vast improvements have been made, drastic changes to the country’s politics and constitution are needed to ensure full protection of women’s rights – especially their rights to health and wellbeing. 

 

This Silence Must be Broken

“May we teach our children that speaking out without the fear of retribution is our culture’s new North Star.” – Laura Dern

It is absurd that in the 21st century, a culture of silence leaves women and girls without certain rights. Some call it tradition, but I shall call it by its name – oppression.

I grew up in a conservative community in Zimbabwe where we were not allowed to discuss other people’s lives. Women were butchered in their own homes. They would yell for help, but their neighbors would shut the doors and mind their own business. Girls were forced to leave school and work as domestic helpers, or worse, be married to older men. These violations of rights have been going on for too long, and what upsets me the most is our collective inability to break the silence. People might say it’s ‘culture’, but what they don’t realise is that this is oppression and it has to stop.

I remember vividly the time in high school when I stood up to a boy who had been forcibly taking my food and making jokes about me.  Everyone revered him as a super hero – girls like myself would suffer in silence and allow him to torment them. One day, I chose to be different and shook off the dust of fear. Since that moment, I assured myself that I would use my voice and stand up for justice whenever I could.

I have younger sisters and when I look at them and the society they are growing up in, my heart bleeds. I sometimes wonder if I am influential enough to effect meaningful change, but still I choose to break the silence by raising my voice. As the old adage goes, ‘it always seem impossible until it’s done’. I hope that one day everyone who is being silenced will be able to speak out loudly and freely.

Oppressed people are silenced through being denied a platform to voice their experiences. They may fear being ostracised if they do speak up. Those who experience suffering usually have difficulty in communicating what they are going through, and this is made worse if people exist within a system that does not allow them space to express themselves. Such is the scenario in many parts of my country.

The most common problem in my community is domestic violence. Far too many women are physically abused by their partners on a daily basis. Sadly, only a handful are able to report their cases, reveal the truth and follow the procedure to attain justice. This is mostly due to the fact that many women are not financially independent and so fear being stranded – sometimes with children to care for – if they put their abusive partner behind bars. As an result, women are suffering in silence.

The absence of space for cases of abuse against women and girls to be articulated means that abusers continue to have the upper hand. Recently, in my community, there has been a case of a young girl – aged 15 – who was impregnated by her stepfather’s son. The girl became terrified after being threatened at home, and so she told members of the community who were quizzing her that it was actually her boyfriend who impregnated her. To see such a lack of justice is heartbreaking, and I’m so tired of it.

It is my desire that one day, those who are being silenced will be able to speak up. As it stands, oppressors are benefiting from the fact that victims have no space or support to stand up for themselves. We have to ensure that the oppressed are heard, in Zimbabwe and all over the world.

Where are the Syrian Girls?

I recently watched footage of displaced Syrians returning to their homes. Men fought back tears as women let tears flow. Young boys and girls clustered around their mothers, absorbing the emotions of the moment. Adolescent boys stood beside their fathers, looking for social cues to mimic the adults.

But there were no adolescent girls.

I studied the video intently, enlarging the screen and hitting pause. No matter how long I stared, how many other videos I viewed or how far I stretched my imagination (well, maybe that young woman is really a girl…or maybe that little girl is really a very young adolescent), I was not able to identify one single adolescent girl.

In conflicts, adolescent girls disappear from public spaces. When Syria spiralled into violence – seven years ago today – families began restricting the mobility of their daughters. As rape and abduction emerged as weapons of war, girls stopped walking to the market. Some stopped going to school and others had to stop going because their schools were destroyed.

As parents lost livelihoods and struggled to feed their families, some began to see marriage as a way to reduce costs in their household so that that they would not watch all of their children slowly starve, and so girls as young as 10 were married off to adult men. Short contract marriages, informal temporary marriages in which girls are passed from temporary husband to temporary husband, emerged as a way to rationalize trafficking. In most cases fathers are the ones who sell their daughters to man after man.

Whether in the home of their parents or husbands, girls across Syria are besieged. Girls who escape as refugees tend to be slightly better off because they are more likely to have access to humanitarian services, but new vulnerabilities emerge. A taxi driver in Jordan told my colleague that he wanted to marry a Syrian girl because “they are desperate and easy to train”. He didn’t say if he would seek to arrange the marriage or abduct. I’m not sure which would be more traumatic for me: being given away to a foreign man by my own father or being kidnapped by a stranger.

In 2016 I spent months working on child marriage prevention and response in the Syria crisis. Since that same year, I’ve been working on other projects that touch the myriad of issues facing Syrian girls as well as girls throughout the region.

I am so tired of this. I don’t like living in Jordan. I want to go home.

Instead of becoming desensitized by the conflict, I absorb it. I feel the plight of these girls in my bones. The girls who can’t leave their homes without being harassed and groped by men in plain daylight. Girls who are married to adult men. Girls who are trafficked by a phoney marriage.

I persist because these girls persist, perhaps like no other.

Anne Frank, a besieged girl from yet another war, wrote that “a single candle can both defy and define the darkness.” The world may not know it, but adolescent girls are defining this crisis through their invisibility. We don’t notice their absence because it screams at a frequency beyond our ability to hear. It is more powerful than our ability to comprehend. One day we will understand just how epic this failure of humanity truly is.

And yet there is the defiance – a little spark inside of every girl that exists despite it all. I know what this defiance looks like, I know what it feels like and I know what it sounds like. It is inside of every Syrian girl I have ever seen, and I know it is inside of every girl I haven’t seen too.

It is a light, flickering and flashing inside besieged girls living homes made of rubble or tents, that defies the darkness of seven years of conflict. This flicker and flash is how I know that this war will end. It is how I know that girls will prevail. And it is how I know that, one day, these invisible girls will reemerge from their homes and their marriages and shine brighter than the sun.

To help break the invisibility of Syrian girls, share this posts and other information on adolescent girls so that the world can see them again.