Sonita sings, no more "Brides for Sale"

How much is a 16 year-old girl worth? At first, Sonita Alizadeh’s mother thought she could only get $7,000 in exchange for her teenage daughter’s hand in marriage. But the woman she was consulting insisted that because she would have to pay at least $9,000 to secure a bride for Sonita’s brother, she should ask the same price for Sonita. She doubted a suitor would pay more than $6,000 for “a girl like her,” and as they continued to haggle over Sonita’s worth, the frowning girl sat sullenly listening to the transaction.This scene is all too common in Afghanistan. According to a UNICEF report, at least 40% of Afghan girls are married before their 18th birthday, and even more shocking 15% are married before they turn 15 years old. Various activist groups are lobbying to raise the legal age of marriage from 16 to 18, but child marriage still plagues Afghanistan and there’s little incentive to change what amounts to a profitable business. Fathers can still legally give consent to marry girls under the legal age, and girls are frequently traded like commodities to solve communal disputes, sometimes before they’re even born.This wasn’t the first time Sonita’s parents tried to sell her into marriage. She recalled the first instance occurring when she was just ten years old. Years later she recalled being naively excited, thinking she was playing some sort of dress up game. “It was the first time [my parents] focused on me and they bought me new clothes,” she said.Now, just three years later, Sonita stood center stage at this year’s Women in the World Summit and delivered a powerful performance of her song “Brides for Sale.” With haunting lyrics and a strong voice, Sonita has been sharing her story and raising awareness about child marriage to an international audience.Sonita’s fight to escape the fate her family had sentenced her to began when she left Afghanistan for Iran, where she worked illegally cleaning bathrooms at a non-profit organization. It was there that she met Roksareh Ghaemmaghami, a documentary filmmaker, who took an interest in the girl and slowly formed a friendship.“She had so many dreams and the reality of her life was so brutal, no perspective. I thought this contrast of dreams and the harsh reality could be a good thing for making a documentary,” Ghaemmaghami said of the young woman.Soon after the two met, Sonita’s mother reappeared in her life, ready to sell her into marriage. That’s when Sonita, an aspiring rapper, turned her art into activism. Since it’s illegal to sing publically in Iran, she secretly filmed a music video of “Brides for Sale” and posted the clip to Youtube. Throughout the intense four-minute clip she raps methodically in Dari, begging for her freedom and personhood. The camera never strays from her bruised face and as the defiant anthem comes to a close, her gazes lingers, still sobering despite now being beautifully made up in wedding garb.Ghaemmaghami recalls how impressed she was with Sonita’s development, both as a young woman and as an artist over the three year filming period. After the video appeared on Youtube however, Sonita’s mother remained unimpressed and continued to pressure her into marriage.Ghaemmaghami kept the camera rolling as the conflict brewed. “There’s an unwritten law that you shouldn’t help, you shouldn’t interfere,” she said. But when it became clear that if she didn’t step in, Sonita’s fate would be sealed, she decided to act. She paid Sonita’s mother $2,000 out of her own pocket to keep the girl in Iran.She stands by her decision, however controversial. “What can you do with $2,000 in real life? You really cannot change anything, you can’t even buy a new car. But there, I could change the life of a person.”Sonita’s life certainly did change after that, and for the better. In 2014, her music video attracted international attention and the Strongheart Group, a fellowship program dedicated to providing young people from difficult backgrounds access to education, offered her a scholarship and a student visa to study in the United States. She now attends Wasatch Academy in Utah. Since moving to the US her activist career has blossomed, and she now supports the work of organizations such as Girls Not Brides. She’s an impressive public speaker and has shared her story at the Women in the World Conference two years in a row. She blogs about her experience in the US and abroad for PRI, and she recently released another music video. This one tackles the subject of child laborers.Ghaemmaghami’s documentary, SONITA, recently won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and has received much critical acclaim. She hopes the film, as well as Sonita’s continued activism, will raise social awareness about child marriage.