Freedom of Expression and Choice
Sonita Alizadeh

Sonita Alizadeh is a young Afghan rapper working to end child marriage. With a poet’s soul and an activist’s passion, she uses rap, conviction and courage to stand up for women’s and girls’ rights.

Sonita was born in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime. Daily life was dangerous, and Sonita’s childhood was challenging. To escape the Taliban, her family walked hundreds of miles to Iran in the rain and snow. Sonita grew up an undocumented refugee in Tehran. To support herself and her family, she cleaned offices and bathrooms and sold handicrafts. Without official papers, Sonita could not go to school. Undeterred, she eventually found a local NGO that provided basic education to young Afghans in the region.

While there, Sonita discovered a talent for writing and art. She witnessed the injustice of the world around her and found poetry, photography and music to be an outlet for self-expression. At age 14, she began experimenting with pop music, but found the slow pace to be too confining for all she had to say. After hearing an Iranian rapper on the radio, she decided to give rap a try. The faster beat and narrative nature of rap created enough space for Sonita to share all that was on her mind. Although it was illegal for a girl to rap alone, and dangerous to speak out, Sonita could not remain silent, so she wrote her first rap, about child labor.

At the NGO, Sonita saw her friends disappear from the classroom one-by-one, as they were forced to marry. Although deeply troubling, this was not a surprise. Sonita’s own family had tried to sell her into marriage when she was ten years old, and then again when she was sixteen. At age 10, Sonita had no idea what it meant to get married. In her mind, marriage meant dressing up and playing bride and groom with her friends and family. The arrangement fell through and Sonita was not married at that time. At age 16, Sonita was told again she had to get married because the family needed money to pay for her brother’s wife. However, Sonita had other ideas for her life. In response to her impending marriage and the feelings of so many of her friends, Sonita wrote the song “Daughters for Sale” and, with the help of a filmmaker who was recording her story, made a music video. They posted it on Youtube, and it quickly went viral. The video was seen by the nonprofit organization Strongheart Group who reached out to Sonita and then facilitated her move to the United States for school at Wasatch Academy in Utah. She was also assisted significantly by the director and crew filming her story, the documentary “Sonita”, which would later receive great acclaim.

Although Sonita was now safe from the imminent threat of marriage and able to go to school for the first time in her life, she was not at peace. Thoughts of her friends in Iran and Afghanistan, and all the children still facing forced marriage haunted her. Compelled to do something more, and with the continued support of Strongheart, Sonita began sharing her story and actively speaking out against child marriage. Sonita’s message is reaching the highest levels of global leadership and civil society, and her story and vision has been shared worldwide. Through her work as a human rights defender and a Girls Not Brides champion, Sonita’s message is reaching young people around the world who are drawn to her music and vision, and joining her in the movement to end child marriage. 

This lesson plan was a collaboration between Speak Truth To Power and The Strongheart Group. The Strongheart Group is a non-profit advocacy organization that specializes in implementing innovative story-to-impact strategies to affect large scale social change.