SHAIDAI, Afghanistan – Benazir is embarrassed by long locks of rust-colored hair dyed with henna, and Benazir tumbles 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 when asked if she knows she has been promised to another family to marry one of their sons.
Her father says he will receive the equivalent of $ 2,000 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 8 years old.
It is traditional for families here to pay a dowry to a bride’s family for a marriage, 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.
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, looks much older than his 55 years – his face is worn with worry. A day laborer who has not found work for several months and with eight children to feed, 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 said as soon as he did, Benazir will be taken away by the man who bought her.
“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 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.'”
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 have 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” by reports that child marriage is on the rise in Afghanistan.
“We have received credible reports of families offering daughters as young as 20 days old for future marriage in return for a dowry,” UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore said in a statement.
‘Part of your heart’
Benazir’s best friend Saliha is only 7 and has been sold for marriage for the same price, $ 2,000, to one in the family of her father’s in-laws in Faryab province in the north.
Benazir and Saliha already have responsibilities in society. They go together to a local mosque 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 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 power, 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 this seems to be getting worse as the crisis spirals, with more than half of Afghanistan’s population now 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, with all 34 provinces affected.
In the relatively affluent province of Herat in western Afghanistan, a relief center is running out of beds.
Doctors without a border-operated facility at Herat Regional Hospital treat the most severely malnourished babies, such as little Farzana, who weighs only 6 pounds in 8 months. She is one of 75 babies being cared for here.
Her father is a butcher, but his business has collapsed so badly that he could not afford 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, chief nurse for pediatrics with MSF at the feed center.
Due to disruptions in health care and aid organizations throughout the region, Giletta said, many children receive no primary care. For many who arrive, it is already too late where a child dies almost every day here.
Another baby in the center, Ali, is small and pale and barely gathers energy to cry. His mother, Smita Umar, was herself malnourished, so Ali was born too weak to breastfeed. When he was 4 months old, he has already spent a total of three months at the center.
“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.”
Richard Engel, Gabe Joselow and Ahmed Mengli reported from Herat. Yuliya Talmazan from London.