I heard about Shagufa when an article was posted in the Arlington Advocate. I read about a young woman who had escaped child marriage to attend college in Bangladesh, completed her degree and had already been accepted to Brandeis for her Master’s program. She was living in Virginia, sponsored by a refugee association, working hard to raise funds to continue her education and become self-sufficient. I was deeply moved. Working with families in Afghanistan has shown me how hard it would be to escape a child marriage, attend college in Bangladesh and find a way to apply to a school in the US and gain entrance to our country. I knew this was one girl in a million.

Since the age of 6, Shagufa had been determined to attend school, receive an education and become a successful contributing member of society. She did this with no support. Her father was extremely strict, very religious and punitive. She did this in a culture that supports a tradition that says girls must marry early, and take care of their husband and his family. She did this in a family that was living in extreme poverty. She did this after being sold into child marriage and living with abusive husband.

As you read about Shagufa’s life, you are hearing a story that is often repeated in villages all over Afghanistan, This is a story that has a happy ending and the possibility of changing a tradition by working closely with and educating mothers, teachers, religious leaders and the community. Girls just like Shagufa want to learn, they want time to grow and mature, find their life purpose and choose who and when they marry. I hope Shagufa’s story will inspire you to help her and the 96 beautiful girls who are part of Educate Girls Now.

At Five, I Gathered Leaves To Cook Our Food

My name is Shagufa Habibi. I grew up in Herat, Afghanistan. When I was 16 years old, I became a child bride, I escaped from my marriage, my family, and Afghanistan to attend college in Bangladesh. I want to share with you my story and goal, to end child marriage and empower girls through sports and education.

I was born to a large family and I am the youngest of eleven siblings. As a little girl, I used to sit next to my father and touch his right hand. I would ask him, “Dad what happened to your hand?” He would tell me that he went to Masjid Jamih Bozorq (the big Mosque in Herat City) to perform prayers. A bomb exploded and he lost his hand. I would touch the wound and ask him “Does it hurt? Then he would tell me that it hurt when he was injured, and the wound was fresh. Then I would ask him, “Dad who were those cruel people who took your hand from you?” I would keep asking him question after question. I would ask him, “Why don’t I remember anything about when all this happened to you?” He would laugh and say, “You were not born yet when it happened to me.”

My mother used to say that severe poverty knocked at our door after my dad became disabled. My mother had to take care of my siblings and spin thread from cotton to sell and also work in the farm. She said that she lost all hope that she would ever see my father alive. Fortunately, my dad recovered but he was not able to work.

My mother prepared herself to accept poverty. I remember we would spread a long tablecloth on the floor and all of us sat there three times every day for meals. The food was usually the same, tea with bread. Sometimes I would complain and cry that I wanted a variety of food. My mother would hold me in her arms and tell me that bread and tea is all that dad can provide. My father was not even able to afford wood for cooking fire. My mother usually sent my brothers to collect leaves twice a day during the fall season. I was very little at that time. The weather was cold, and I used to accompany my brothers to collect leaves. We did not have gloves or warm clothes. There was no TV to learn about the weather forecast. I was afraid of the Taliban, but I had my brothers with me. I remember one day I went with my brothers to collect leaves. Suddenly, the weather became cloudy. Soft drops of rain started falling and soon brought a heavy typhoon. I do not remember what happened next. After a few hours I realized that I was in a shop and the shopkeeper told us our family would find us. We should not be worried, and we are safe. In fact, my brother and I were lost during the typhoon and the shopkeeper rescued us. We had no choice except to collect leaves to make fire to cook to survive, even in a typhoon. Everyday, I learned to be responsible and do whatever my mother assigned me to do. Days and years passed, and I would try to help my parents around the house.

I used to ask my mother, “Mom, when will we become rich to buy enough food and pretty clothes and shoes?” My mother used to say to me that her childhood stories are very similar to mine. Our destiny is the same. She had always experienced difficulties and hardships and I am her daughter. Indeed, she said, I inherited from her my destiny of poverty and hardship. She would tell me that “We have to accept destiny and live life.” Her destiny was not easy. I used to ask her, “Mother what is destiny?” She would respond, “Destiny is the life that Allah (God of Muslim followers) gifted to us and Allah will only give us what we deserve.” I would take a minute and think about it and ask her again, “Mother, why does God give us poverty? Does it mean we do not deserve to be rich? Does Allah have justice.’ My mother would respond, “It is Allah who knows what to give and who receives. Go and help your sisters around the house and do not question Allah. It is a huge sin to doubt Allah. We have to be thankful for whatever he gives and accept life.”

In fact, those questions always stayed in my mind. I would think that I do not want my journey to be similar to my mother. I used to think why does Allah want us to be poor. Why are girls in my neighborhood rich? What do those girls have that I do not have? Why should our family be poor? I used to imagine my mother’s childhood stories and tell myself that I want a different journey. Eventually, my everyday questions fueled my motivation to look for different opportunities, such as education and sports to make my life different from my mother.

To be continued……