Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world, with 36 percent of its population living below the poverty line. (Pixabay)

Nasima was doing a mathematics assignment when her mother informed her of the journey. “You are leaving tonight.” “I did not know how to react,” says the 14-year-old Afghan girl, who now lives with a legal guardian in Stockholm. Nasima entered Sweden from the Mediterranean region in 2015—one of 35,369 unaccompanied children to do so. Similar to most other children making their way to Europe alone, Nasima had no decision-making role in the journey. “Everything happened in the blink of an eye,” she says, with teary eyes, her voice shaking. “I had no time to say goodbye, even to my sisters and brothers.” Nasima is a rarity in Sweden. Most Afghan families do not allow unaccompanied women—minors or adults—to undertake such a perilous journey. According to data from the Swedish Migration Agency, girls and young women constitute less than10 percent of the unaccompanied minor refugees. In 2015, only eight unaccompanied girls entered Sweden per day, compared with 90 unaccompanied boys. Migration is a gendered process, and with each new immigrant, a set of beliefs, stereotypes and capabilities move to the new country. Lack of personal security, the fear of rape and loss of family honor are the main concerns that prevent families from sending a daughter on such a hazardous journey. Nasima comes from a conservative background, so sending her away was not an easy decision. “The neighbors, relatives and friends accuse me of being an irresponsible parent and disgracing the family,” says Nasima’s mother. In Afghanistan, a vast majority of women still don’t have adequate freedom of movement. During the reign of the Taliban, women were prohibited by law from traveling without a mahram, a man they are forbidden to marry, such as a father, brother or son. Since the fall of the Taliban, women have made significant sociopolitical and economic gains, but old stereotypes and residual Talibani beliefs still affect women’s freedom. As a result, fewer Afghan refugees are female. Moreover, in traditional Afghan society, women are considered physically weak and emotionally unstable. Such discriminatory beliefs lead traditional Afghan families to doubt whether their daughters are capable of overcoming the hardships of the journey. Investing in sons, who are deemed physically and mentally stronger, seems like a more secure and rational option for traditional Afghan families. Teenage Afghan boys also tend to have more interest in undertaking the journey in order to prove their manhood. The ideals of masculinity are applied through peer pressure both within Afghanistan and among their social networks in the destination country. Ishaq, a 17-year-old unaccompanied Afghan boy living in Stockholm, acknowledges that one reason he agreed to undertake the journey was that his school friends in Afghanistan challenged him, telling him to “do it if you are a man.” While Afghanistan’s deteriorating security, dire economic conditions and uncertainty about the country’s future are common driving forces for youth migration, traditional attitudes skew toward masculinity and reinforce stereotypes. Nasima’s mother and her four children live in a suburb of Ghazni, one of the most unstable provinces in Afghanistan. Nasima’s father has been an opium addict for almost 15 years and started injecting heroin and other substances three years ago. He was heavily indebted to his friend and promised to exchange Nasima for the debt. “I couldn’t give away my daughter,” says Nasima’s mother. “Am I an irresponsible mother?” Child marriage, forced marriage and paying off family debt with daughters are commonly practiced in Afghanistan. “Girls are people’s property,” Nasima’s neighbor says. “The sooner they leave their father’s house with dignity, the better it is for the family.” But Nasima’s mother resisted the norm. A friend of hers was leaving for Sweden with her family, and she decided to entrust Nasima to their care.
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