It was August 2015 and I was on my way to school, listening to Akele Tanha, an Indian song that our school bus driver Kaka was playing. I was watching the people in their cars and thinking whether or not they seemed good in character from their faces. When I met their eyes most of them brought a kind of a fear to my heart. They seemed to look at me as an object, not a person who has the right to study or have any other rights. Trusting people is difficult for me after all that has happened in my country. I felt they wanted to hurt me.

Twenty minutes later I reached school, taking the steps to get to my class on the third floor. I felt someone behind me and it was Fariha, my best friend ever. We went to the class together. I sat on my chair taking my books out of my bag while Fariha came over to talk. “Have you done all your homework?’’ Fariha said. “I want to hear a story from you.’’

She loves my stories and jokes so she always wants me to tell her stories. “Of course,’’ I said, “I don’t have any homework to do anyway, so listen carefully.”

I told her a story about my childhood neighbor and friend, Najwa. She lost her father before she was born and her mother was lost in their problems. She didn’t know whether to keep Najwa or to give her to another family to feed her. She kept her as long as she could, but unfortunately when there was no other choice, she gave Najwa at age two to another family. She wanted Najwa to grow up close by so she gave her to one of her neighbors.

They were not rich but they were good enough to feed Najwa. The family didn’t love Najwa, but she loved each member of that family as her own family. When she got old enough she worked all day taking care of the house, the sheep, and the three children she loved as her own brothers. She was doing the hard work of a grownup man during her childhood. I saw how thin she was from working.

When Najwa was thirteen, her mother came several times to bring her back home. But that family did not want to let go of her and kept saying how they would miss such a jewel. They had found a servant for themselves. When Najwa was fifteen and in middle school she worked so much she couldn’t go to all of her lessons at school. But the worst thing was that the family told her she had to marry someone she had never seen. I don’t know how old the man was but I am sure he was much older than Najwa.

Life brought Najwa lots of misfortunes, but she didn’t give up. Whenever I saw Najwa, I saw a smile on her face and it looked as if she didn’t have any problems in life. It put me in a dilemma: if I laughed with her and made her happy, it looked like I was pleased about her situation, but if I cried it might look like I thought of her as a weak and poor girl.

When I finished telling my friend this story we sat there thinking about our country. After these many years of fighting against violence, still we witness children forced to work and forced into early marriage. I love Afghanistan and I am proud of being an Afghan girl. But whenever I see girls being hurt because of their gender, and I see how women are considered to be objects, it hurts me. Afghanistan is my love and my pain.

By Alia, age 15

Photo by 43rd Sustainment Brigade Public Affairs Office