“After murdering someone, my father negotiated my nikah [marriage contract] with his victim’s brother to prevent a vendetta and further escalation of hostilities between our tribes,” the young Afghan woman said. She had been given away in a marriage of baad as recompense for her father’s crime of murdering someone.

“He gave me away through a traditional jirga [tribal council] held by the local community elders. After my ‘marriage’, my husband and his family treated me like a slave and acted so violently towards me. My husband always reminded and taunted me, saying, ‘You were obtained in exchange for my brother’s blood.’”

Beset by the physical, mental, and emotional abuse that her husband’s family subjected her to, she was finally referred to Women for Afghan Women (WAW) where she was placed in a women’s shelter. With the assistance of the organisation, she was able to obtain a divorce and seek justice to be rid of the tyranny that was inflicted on her. Today, she is married to a new man of her own choosing and happier than ever before.

Yet, there are still many young girls who remain trapped in this archaic system of baad in Afghanistan. The tradition involves marrying off a girl after a member in her family commits a serious crime, such as murder, sexual assault, or other perceived wrongs, in order to prevent further hostilities or bloodshed.

The perpetuator’s family will typically offer one of their daughters in the form of baad to a member of the victim’s aggrieved family via intermediaries such as jirgas. The process is usually initiated by taking one or several sheep, in addition to a sum of cash, to the victim’s family as a token of goodwill and apology for the crime that was committed. The families then request the convening of a tribal jirga for a resolution. After a series of mediations, the elders could propose a baad between the parties.

Despite it being a criminal offence under the 1976 Afghan Penal Code, it is unheard of for any jirga elders or family members to be arrested or tried for using a girl as a bartering tool for the tradition. In fact, the custom not only runs counter to Afghan civil law but also Sharia law – both of which prohibit forced marriage. In remote parts of the country, however, certain misguided and antiquated interpretations of religious and cultural precepts are used to justify keeping the tradition alive.

WAW has dealt with numerous baad marriage cases through its centers in 14 Afghan provinces. The vast majority of these cases have been resolved through mediation, family counselling, and legal services provided by WAW. The organization also focuses on empowering survivors so that they are able to be reunited with their families and reintegrate into society with the opportunity and skills they need.

WAW’s Executive Director, Najia Nasim, said: “WAW views baad as an inhumane, violent, un-Islamic tradition, and illegal mediation carried out by local jirgas or community elders – who are ignorant not only of Afghan civil law, but also the tenets of Islam and Sharia law.

“In fact, baad may be considered one of the most terrible forms of violence against women in Afghanistan, as the woman or girl are not only forcibly married, but also carry the stigma of the crime perpetrated by her relative. Even though innocent, the woman or girl bartered to another family through baad is often treated as a criminal and associated directly with the crime itself.”

Baad has catastrophic effects on the physical, mental, and emotional health of the women and girls exposed to it. Extreme violence – including rape, torture, and physical, psychological, and verbal abuse by their husbands and in-laws – is commonplace. It is also linked to high rates of suicide and attempted suicide, often through self-immolation or drinking/eating poison. The women are also heavily restricted, with little freedom of movement or the right to education. This subversion of the fundamental rights of women and girls through baad further entrenches harmful patriarchal attitudes in Afghanistan, which serves to adversely affect subsequent generations of Afghan women and girls.

Afghanistan must properly address and permanently uproot many of the challenges facing women and girls, gender-based violence, and other forms of abuse, including baad and other harmful practices,” Nasim insisted.

“There needs to be adequate enforcing of the rule of law in every part of the country, ensuring that all Afghans have access to formal justice mechanisms. The level of public awareness about women’s rights everywhere – particularly in remote areas – needs to be increased. and the implementation of charging, convicting, along with the imprisoning all violators of those rights, including persons who are considered elders or persons of power.”