Six-year-old Afghan girl saved from marriage to cover father's debt

She was married at 6 years old
She was married at 6 years old

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Story highlights

  • An Afghan man and his family flee to a refugee camp amid fighting
  • He borrows money to pay for his wife's medical bills
  • When he can't repay the debt he marries off his daughter to the money lender's son
  • A lawyer helps get them out of the deal and offers the family another chance

Her big brown eyes, framed by long soft lashes, are wide open as she takes in the unfamiliar surroundings. She's never stepped foot into a place like this, with books, computers, classrooms and musical instruments. In fact Naghma has never been to school, let alone one that looked like this.

The seven-year old dressed in a blue headscarf and a tattered, red dress, is at Afghanistan's National Institute of Music with her father, Taj Mohammad. He's a big man with kind eyes and wears a grey shalwar kameez, Afghanistan's traditional dress. Naghma's older brother, nine-year-old Wakhil, is also with them, popping in and out of every nook and cranny, exploring this new and foreign world.

But as they walk along the hallway, Naghma refuses to leave her father's side. She is his shadow -- a daddy's girl. It's right beside him, holding his hand that she feels most comfortable.

Fleeing conflict

But last year Taj Mohammad betrayed his little daughter's trust.

It began when the family fled the fighting in the country's southern Helmand Province. Taj Mohammad moved his wife and nine children to a refugee camp on the outskirts of Kabul thinking this would be a better life. But unable to make a living, the family suffered, especially when the brutal winter arrived. His wife had to be hospitalized when she fell ill and then his three-year-old son froze to death.

Taj Mohammad borrowed $2,500 to pay for his wife's medical bills and other family expenses. But when he couldn't repay the debt he decided the only solution was to marry off Naghma, then only six, to the money lender's 19-year-old son.

Naghma, a shy Afghan girl, was married off to a moneylender's son

"It was a difficult decision," Taj Mohammad tells me in a remorseful tone. "Everyone gives away their child but to give Naghma away like that was just so hard."

When human rights groups found out they were outraged and contacted a U.S. lawyer Kimberley Motley. The former beauty queen and mother of three who lives between Kabul and Milwaukee, Wisconsin where her family is based, has been working in Afghanistan for the past five years. She arrived in 2008 as part of a U.S. State Department program to train and mentor Afghan defense attorneys.

Anonymous donor

While it was only supposed to be a short-term stay, Motley realized there was a serious shortage of lawyers and decided to set up a practice. While her main clients are foreigners, embassies and corporations, she has made a name for herself with her pro bono work representing victimized Afghan women.

When this case came across her desk, Motley jumped at it. Through her contacts and experience in the country, she arranged an assembly of Afghan elders known as a Jirga, and managed to get Naghma out of the marriage and back to her family. An anonymous donor then paid off Taj Mohammad's debt.

"I'm certainly very happy that Naghma did not have to be married off at the age of 6, so I'm pleased with that," explains Motley. "But I'd like to make sure she gets an education and becomes successful."

Naghma's father Taj Mohammad says it felt like he'd been thrown into the fire when he couldn't pay his debt

Which is the reason why they're visiting Afghanistan's National Institute of Music -- a school that takes orphans and underprivileged children and is offering placements for both Naghma and her brother.

Motley who walks through the school with Taj Mohammad and the two children asks them what they think. Through an interpreter, Taj Mohammad says he likes it very much and would like his children to attend. He knows he and his children have been given another a chance.

"When I couldn't pay my debt I felt like I'd been thrown into the fire and then someone rescued me -- that was Kim. She has been so kind to me I'm ready to do whatever Kim says."

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