View a slide show of the strange, dark world of Afghan weddings.
OQA, Afghanistan—"Are you excited about the wedding, Ozyr Khul?" "Do you like your bride, Ozyr Khul?" "Ozyr Khul! Ozyr Khul is getting married!"
Embarrassed, Ozyr Khul blushes and runs off. He runs from questions about his wedding, from the pestering adults and from the taunting children. Mostly, he runs because that's what boys do in his tiny, arid village: They run, alone and in flocks, dashing about like hosts of sparrows, dirty heels flashing over the hard-packed soil, slingshots in hand.
Ozyr Khul's exact age is a matter of some dispute in Oqa, a waterless hamlet prostrate in the middle of the desert of northern Balkh province, without a single tree or field, as though accidentally placed here by some absent-minded cartographer. He doesn't know how old he is; one of his friends says he might be 13; another suggests 15. His parents swear he is 16, the legal marrying age in Afghanistan.
"I know he looks small, but I know he's old enough because he goes to the desert every day to collect firewood," an uncle says. But in Oqa, all boys older than 10 go to the desert every day to collect tumbleweed they sell as kindling in larger villages.
Ozyr Khul is slight; not even 5 feet tall in his plastic flip-flops and his turquoise and fuchsia skullcap. His best friends are ages 12, 11, and 8. His favorite pastime is to fire his slingshot: at speckled desert birds, at distant rocks, at the immense blue sky. He recently got into a wrestling match with a 9-year-old girl. (He won.)
Child marriage in Afghanistan is pandemic. "In the villages people believe very strongly that the earlier you marry the better: This way your children are old enough to help you with work while you are still young," says Farid Mutaqi, a human rights worker in Mazar-e-Sharif. The U.N. agency that monitors the rights of children worldwide, UNICEF, reports that 57 percent of marriages in Afghanistan involve girls below the legal age limit. Afghan and international nonprofits consider the problem of child brides to be one of the foremost threats to women's rights here.
What is addressed less often, and studied less thoroughly, is that many of the child newlyweds are boys.
Most marriages in Afghanistan are arranged by the parents and are a form of a calculated financial exchange between families that focuses on the merger of two estates rather than the union of two people. Such marriages rarely take into consideration the wishes of the bride or the groom.
On top of being arranged, as all marriages in Oqa ever have been, Ozyr Khul's marriage is a badaal, or bridal swap -- a common practice in poor Afghan villages where families cannot afford a bride price that can be as high as $9,000. In a badaal marriage, two men, usually cousins, marry each other's sisters. This lowers the bride price significantly, though some money usually still is exchanged, thus ensuring that the inheritance of both women -- or girls -- remains within the family.
The union of Ozyr Khul and Anamingli, who is 16 years old, parallels the marriage of Anamingli's brother, Naim, to Ozyr Khul's sister, Mastura. Naim is 40 years old. He was betrothed to Mastura three years ago, when Mastura was 14, and has already paid her family more than $1,000 for the bride. This month, Mastura's parents finally agreed that it was time to consummate the marriage.