Blown away, with long locks of rust-colored hair dyed with henna, Benazir stumbles with a handful of gravel when the topic of her marriage comes up.
She looks down at the ground and buries her head in her knees as she is asked if she knows she has been promised to another family to marry one of their sons.
Her father says he will receive what is equivalent to AUD 2750 for Benazir, but he has not explained to her the details or what is expected of her.
She is too young to understand, he says.
Benazir is only eight years old.
It is traditional for families here to pay dowry to brides’ families for marriages, but it is extreme to arrange a marriage for such a young child.
And the economic collapse following the Taliban’s takeover in August has forced already poor families to make desperate choices.
Days of adversity
The days are filled with hardships for children here in Shaidai, a desert community on the mountainous edge of Herat in western Afghanistan.
Children like Benazir and her siblings beg on the street or collect garbage to heat their simple mud homes because they do not have enough money for wood.
Her father, Murad Khan, a day laborer who has not found work for several months and has eight children to feed, looks much older than his 55 years.
His face is worn with worry.
His decision to sell Benazir for marriage at such a young age comes down to a cold calculation.
“We are 10 people in the family. I try to keep 10 alive by sacrificing one, ”he said on Pashto.
Khan said the arrangement is that Benazir will marry a boy from a family in Iran when she reaches puberty.
He has not yet received the money for her dowry and he said that as soon as he does, Benazir will be taken away by the man who bought her.
“He just wants to take her hand and take her away from me,” he said.
“He will take her away and say, ‘She is ours now.'”
We are 10 people in the family. I’m trying to keep 10 alive by sacrificing one.
A combination of a severe drought that reduced livestock and farmers’ yields and the freezing of foreign aid by governments that do not recognize the new Taliban government has pushed poor Afghans over the edge.
Promising their daughters early for marriage in exchange for cash is seen as a lifeline for families who barely have a piece of bread to eat.
The United Nations Population Fund has warned that it is “deeply concerned” over reports that child marriage is on the rise in Afghanistan.
Henrietta Fore, Executive Director of UNICEF, said in a statement: “We have received credible reports of families offering daughters as young as 20 days old for future marriage in return for a dowry.”
‘Part of your heart’
Benazir’s best friend, Saliha, who is only seven, has been sold into marriage for the same price to one in the family of her father-in-law in Faryab province in the north.
Benazir and Saliha already have responsibilities in society.
They go to a local mosque together to gather water, a scarcity of desert, and pull the hefty jugs together back to their homes.
Like her older neighbors, Saliha also spins yarn – pulls in a tangled cloud of wool brought by merchants and twists it into neat spools of string.
It takes four days to refine eight pounds (3.6 kg) of the material, giving her a dollar.
But the family is in debt. Saliha’s father, Muhammed Khan, says he took out loans from store owners in the city.
“I have told the store owners that I have sold my daughter and I will pay them back so they have given me some food as a loan,” he said.
The money he earns from selling Saliha will help pay it all back and feed her four siblings.
It was a soul-searching decision, he says.
“Your children are a part of your heart. If I was not forced to do this, then why should I?” he says.
Afghanistan was a poor country before the Taliban took over, backed by foreign aid. According to the World Bank, about 75 percent of public finances were provided by subsidies from the United States and other countries.
When the U.S. military withdrew and the hardline Islamist Taliban government took over, much of that aid money was frozen.
Wages dried up and the flow of cash stopped abruptly, creating a humanitarian crisis.
And things are looking to get worse as the crisis spirals, with more than half the population facing hunger and 3.2 million children suffering from malnutrition, according to the UN World Food Program.
The agency said it had never seen so many people face emergency levels of food insecurity in Afghanistan, where all 34 provinces are affected.
In the relatively affluent province of Herat in western Afghanistan, a relief center is running out of beds.
Your children are a part of your heart. If I was not forced to do this, then why should I do it?
Médecins Sans Frontières-based facility at Herat Regional Hospital treats the most severely malnourished babies, such as little Farzana, who weighs only 2.9 kg at the age of eight months.
She is one of 75 babies being cared for here.
Her father is a butcher.
His business has collapsed so badly that he could not continue to feed his family.
Farzana lies without making a sound, a small, pale, bone-thin arm sticks out, and her big eyes do not blink.
“What we see are very young children who are not breastfed well by the mothers because the mothers are all so malnourished that they cannot produce enough breast milk to feed them,” said Gaia Giletta, a borderline nurse for pediatrics. at the feed center.
Due to disruptions in health care and aid organizations across the region, Giletta said, many children receive no primary care.
For many who arrive, it is already too late – a child dies here almost every day.
Another baby in the middle, Ali, is small and pale and has barely enough energy to cry.
Things have gotten worse since the Taliban came. The little we had went to zero.
His mother, Smita Umar, was herself malnourished, so Ali was born too weak to breastfeed.
As a four-month-old, he has already been at the center for three months.
“My husband is a house painter,” Umar said.
“But he sold his tools so we could feed the baby. Things have gotten worse since the Taliban came.
“The little we had went to zero.”