Drought exacerbates Afghanistan’s child marriage problem

Last March, Rabia and her two young daughters were forced to leave their homes in northern Afghanistan. While facing the threat of increased violence, their village was also in the midst of a severe drought that strained the water supply and destroyed crops. Rabia could no longer raise its sheep, which had provided a steady source of income. She was estranged from her husband and lived with her brother before he was killed in a Taliban attack. She says she relied on his family for further support. But they were farmers, and without water, wheat, corn, and other crops would not grow. Out of desperation, the whole clan packed up and moved in hopes of finding work outside their village.

They eventually settled in a camp for internally displaced persons outside the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif. In early August, Rabia sat with her daughters on the mud floor of their current home: a one-room structure with mud walls and thatched roofs. Rabia, which like many Afghans goes by one name, remembered the months leading up to their journey. “The country dried up and the violence worsened,” she said, referring to the fighting between the Taliban and Afghan forces. “We had nowhere else to go.”

Rabia and her daughters are among the hundreds of other families in the camp who have fled drought and violence. According to UNICEF, more than 682,000 Afghans were internally displaced in October. They left their homes to seek food, work, and security — yet they faced faced decisions. In February last year, Rabia’s eldest daughter, 11-year-old Shukria, became engaged to a man almost twice her age in exchange for flour, rice and cash to support his family for years to come. “I know my daughter is a child and it was too early for her to get married,” Rabia explained. But without the ability to support Shukria and her sister, Rabia said she had no other choice. “It was either her marriage or our funerals.”

Shukria, thin and mouth-watering, did not protest the decision. At the time of the interview in August, she was attending a local madrassa in her community to study the Koran. At home, she learned to cook and sew, she said, “so I can become a good wife.”

Child marriage is not a new phenomenon in South Asia, and despite attempts to legislate against it, practice is still common in Afghanistan. Reports suggest an increase in such marriages, spurred on by the violence that preceded the Taliban’s takeover, and by the effects of climate change on this agricultural country. Over the last half century, temperatures here have risen almost twice as much as they have globally, which has accelerated evaporation and led to prolonged drought. This, experts say, has reduced crop yields and thrown many Afghans into poverty as they are no longer able to live off the land. With few viable employment opportunities, some families turn to a traditional wedding custom known as water, thereby giving money to the girl’s family. With little time left, these families say, the best available option is a heartbreaking option: to marry their daughters while the girls are still young.

In return for Shukria, the man’s family promised to give Rabia money and goods worth more than $ 6,000, a princely sum to the starving family. Inside his mud home, Rabia picked up a small piece of paper, a log of payments from the man’s family. So far, Rabia said, she had received about a sixth of those water in food and medical expenses for her children. “Just basic necessities to survive,” Rabia said. “I will not give my girl to them until the full amount has been paid.”

Child marriages are usually not documented in Afghanistan and data collection is limited. However, several non-governmental organizations have observed an increase in child marriages, corresponding to increased periods of drought. In 2018, for example, the worst Afghan drought in a decade hit two-thirds of the country, displacing 300,000 people. A report by UNICEF the same year noted that “the drought has exacerbated the practice of child marriage affecting at least 161 children” from two provinces.

In a separate report published in June last year, the Norwegian Refugee Council, which runs programs in displaced camps throughout Afghanistan, wrote that drought-stricken families in need of money had turned to child labor and early marriage. Some allowed their children to make money by participating in the struggles. In other words, the situation was serious. “Parents have reported giving their children sleeping pills to prevent them from asking for food,” the report said.

“Studies show that there has been an increase in the number of droughts and floods, and since Afghans are highly dependent on agriculture, they are directly affected” by changed conditions, says Assem Mayar, Ph.D. graduate of the University of Stuttgart in Germany, studying water resource management. In some regions, precipitation fell from 1950 to 2010 by as much as 30 percent; meanwhile, Afghanistan’s average annual temperature rose by more than 3 degrees Fahrenheit, roughly double the increase globally over the same period.

“Annual drought in many parts of the country is likely to become the norm by 2030, rather than being a temporary or cyclical event,” a 2016 UN report warned. “This will mostly be due to higher temperatures leading to higher evapotranspiration and higher demand for crops and livestock water.” The International Organization for Migration (IOM), a UN agency that monitors displacement in the region, reports that nearly 3.5 million Afghans are currently hard hit by drought.

In Shukria’s home province of Faryab, more than 874,000 residents are at risk of being displaced due to drought this year, according to the IOM dataset. “Household debt levels are rising astronomically,” said Michael Speir, a displacement expert working for the IOM. These families, he says, “are forced to pursue the worst of all solutions.”

Mayar has thoroughly studied the region’s changing climate. He says the impact of water scarcity could be mitigated with better planning and infrastructure. Drought, he says, “does not have to result in famine and food insecurity.” Speir agrees that better water management would improve the situation, but the current policy context poses a challenge to any infrastructure upgrade. The former government and humanitarian agencies responsible for implementing solutions have now been disbanded or greatly reduced.

A picture of a man and a child distributing tanks with water
A father-son team with their rickshaw filled with containers of drinking water that they sell in the camps. (Ruchi Kumar / Undark)

“The new administration is not able to manage this situation,” Mayar said. “Most low-level Taliban believe that God created the people and that he will feed them. They do not worry about ‘how’. Meanwhile, senior Taliban officials have called for international support to deal with the drought. But look “in their economic situation, it is unlikely that they will secure the means to control this,” he said, referring to the sanctions imposed by the United States, as well as other countries and international organizations, following the Taliban’s takeover. not pay the salaries of their government employees, “he adds.” How can they help with water management? “

All of this points to hard times ahead for many Afghans. “The lack of water forced us to leave our homeland,” said Qudratullah, a village elder from Faryab province who now lives in the same camp as Rabia. He walked past rows of mud houses and clusters of tent camps scattered across the country’s vast northern plains, describing the situation in his hometown, not far from where Shukria and Rabia once lived.

“There was not even any drinking water left, so irrigation was out of the question,” he said. The dwindling water supply placed a heavy burden on women whose job was to transport water to the village. As the wells began to dry up, the women had to walk longer, up to 12 miles in a day, to get water, Qudratullah said. They started getting sick. Some complained about problems with their menstrual cycle. “Mentally, they were not feeling well,” Qudratullah added.

“When the crops began to fail and livestock began to die, younger boys were pulled out of school and sent to work to support the families,” he continued. “Those who had daughters sold them in marriage.” This was his first experience of expulsion, said Qudratullah – a rare claim in a country that has struggled with decades of conflict and crisis. “Even the wars for many decades could not make us travel, but the lack of water has forced us to leave our homeland.”

A 1,000-gallon tank in the middle of the camp serves as the families’ primary water source. Donated by the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, the tank is located on top of two-story brick columns. “Some NGOs help pay for the water,” said Qudratullah, who is used for bathing and chores. Drinking water, meanwhile, is provided by families in the camp who have set up small businesses. A father-son team, for example, has rented a small rickshaw and about 20 cans to take into town, where they buy drinking water to fill their cans. When they are back in the camp, they sell their water at a small profit.

Shukria was not the only girl in the camp destined for a child marriage, Qudratullah said. At the time of DarkAugust interview, there were several other cases, but families did not want to talk. “Many of them are aware that it is wrong to marry girls so young,” he explained. But, he added, people have to survive.

Rabia once had high hopes for her daughter’s future, including getting the girl an education. “But I can not afford to feed her – it was our only option,” she said.

“Besides,” she added, “she will be sent to a good family who can take care of her.”

Still, the family of the future groom is not feeling much better. They were also displaced by the drought, the man’s father, Mohammad Ismail, said. The men in the family worked in nearby brick ovens, Ismail says, earning some savings, “so we can marry our son to the girl he chose.” Ismail says his son saw Shukria by the mattress and fell in love with her.

The water resource expert, Assem Mayar, characterizes the global climate situation as fundamentally unfair. Afghanistan produces a very small amount of greenhouse gases, he says, and yet its people – including young girls like Shukria – carry the bulk of the world’s emissions.

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