Afghan rapper and refugee Sonita Alizada: education is the way out of child marriage

The activist escaped two attempted forced marriages by 16 and uses music to spread her message

By the age of 16, Afghan refugee Sonita Alizada had already escaped two attempts by her family to sell her into a forced marriage, the second only failing when the contract fell through.

Born into extreme poverty in Herat, Afghanistan, she and her family fled the rise of the Taliban and political unrest for Iran when she was six or seven years old.

During her childhood she worked as a labourer and was only able to receive an education because of aid via an Iranian NGO for undocumented Afghan children.

It was through that education that she discovered her passion for music and in particular rap, setting her on a journey to campaign against child marriage and use her platform to help young people get an education.

In 2014 her song Brides for Sale and the accompanying, uncompromising music video went viral and thrust her into the spotlight.

The music video, which shows her with a bar code on her head and a black eye, rails against the practice of marrying children off for money and the silence young girls have to endure.

"I started to learn music when I was attending classes at the local NGO for undocumented Afghan refugees. I needed an outlet to express myself. The injustices that I was witnessing had to be given a voice," Alizada, who has lived in the US since 2015, told The National.

“I started out trying pop music, but my message was too much to fit into a pop song. Then I tried rap, rap made me feel good. People listen to lyrics. They pay attention. I used music to share important messages in an attempt to change attitudes and behaviours.”

While Brides for Sale is perhaps the song Alizada – now in her 20s – is best known for, her music and advocacy has never stopped. The combination of the two means her message resonates on multiple levels and she has been able to address events and people at a local and government level.

But she says her message is still largely delivered through her music, with rappers such as Eminem and the Iranian artist Yas cited as big influences.

“Rap, music and poetry have been outlets for me to express myself to the world. They allow me to tell my story. They provide a platform to share my advocacy. Through my advocacy I have worked to create awareness and positive change on multiple levels, but particularly for the girls and women of Afghanistan.

“Rap is powerful. I do not have a favourite song or lyric. Each of my songs is about what is in my heart, whether it be child labour or child marriage, I am really passionate about all of the issues.”

Her story first grabbed the attention of the world when she met Iranian filmmaker Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami, who was researching a film about Afghan refugees in Iran.

Brides for Sale would emerge from the documentary Sonita, which went on to win awards at global film festivals, including Sundance in 2016. Ghaemmaghami also helped Alizada obtain a passport and move to the US.

“Education is the way to equality. The practice of forced child marriage is largely a consequence of lack of educational opportunity. My mother was married at the age of 12 to a man she met on her wedding day. Neither she nor her family knew any better, this was tradition. Education affords the knowledge that there are other options,” she said.

“Education provides the opportunity to better oneself and self-support through employment. Lack of education is a major factor in poverty, and poverty is what led my family to feel they had to sell me.”

Alizada is now also a youth leader for the Global Partnership for Education and a champion for Girls Not Brides, a partnership dedicated to ending child marriage.

GPE says that 9.2 million children are enrolled in general education in Afghanistan, 39 per cent of them girls, up from 0.9 million in 2001, almost none of whom were females.

Nonetheless, more than 3.7 million children remain out of school, 60 per cent of them girls, with GPE allocating $207 million since 2011 to help expand access to education in Afghanistan. The partnership has also supported the recruitment and training of more women teachers to some of the country’s most isolated and poorest areas.

So while progress is being made, Alizada says access to education in Afghanistan remains the biggest hurdle.

“I believe access to education is probably the greatest challenge. Education not only for young boys and girls to understand their choices and potential, but also for parents to understand the possibilities and opportunities to better their lives,” she said.

“Access to education is actually the driving force behind the elimination of forced child marriage. Reduced poverty, gender equality, social justice, improved health are just a few of the positive results that have all been directly linked to increased access to education.

"As organisations like GPE, governments and individuals continue to support access to, and availability of, education to the people of Afghanistan, change is inevitable.

“I am always hopeful in regard to having a better future for my people and my homeland. Every day I see young people standing up for change – when this takes place then change is possible.”

Much has changed for Alizada in the last few years and she now studies at a liberal arts college in New York. She says she is often asked about her relationship with her mother and family more widely.

“I am happy to share that today my mother is very supportive of my work and my vision for the future. I talk to my family frequently,” she said.

"I realise that it is difficult for people to believe that I do love my mother, but my mother wasn’t selling me because she didn’t love me; she was selling me because that was the only future she saw possible for me.

"Through my advocacy and the opportunities that I have been afforded, she now knows there are options and possibilities for women to do great things in the world.