SHEDAI CAMP, Afghanistan – In a sprawling settlement of mudstone huts in western Afghanistan that houses people displaced by drought and war, a woman is fighting to save her daughter.
Aziz Gul’s husband sold the 10-year-old girl for marriage without telling his wife, and received a payment so he could feed his family of five children. Without the money, he told her, they would all starve. He had to sacrifice one to save the rest.
Many of Afghanistan’s growing numbers of needy people are making desperate decisions like these as their nation spirals into a whirlpool of poverty.
The aid-dependent country’s economy was already rocking when the Taliban seized power in mid-August amid a chaotic withdrawal of US and NATO troops. The international community froze Afghanistan’s assets abroad and stopped all funding, unwilling to work with a Taliban government because of its reputation for brutality under its previous rule 20 years ago.
The consequences have been devastating for a country plagued by four decades of war, a punishing drought and the coronavirus pandemic. Legions of government employees, including doctors, have not been paid for months. Malnutrition and poverty haunt the most vulnerable, and aid groups say more than half of the population is facing acute food shortages.
“Day by day, the situation in this country is deteriorating, and children in particular are suffering,” said Asuntha Charles, national director of the World Vision Aid Organization in Afghanistan, which runs a health clinic for displaced people just outside the western city of Herat. .
“Today, I have been devastated to see that families are willing to sell their children to feed other family members,” Charles said. “So it is the right time for the humanitarian community to stand up and stay with the people of Afghanistan.”
Arranging marriages for very young girls is a frequent practice throughout the region. The groom’s family – often distant relatives – pay money to seal the deal, and the child usually stays with her own parents until she is at least around 15 or 16. But with many not being able to afford even ordinary food, some say they would allow future grooms to take very young girls or even try to sell their sons.
But Yellow, unusual in this deeply patriarchal, male-dominated society, resists. She married herself as a 15-year-old and says she would commit suicide if her daughter, Qandi Gul, is forcibly taken away.
Yellow remembers well the moment she found out her husband had sold Qandi. For about two months, the family had been able to eat. Eventually she asked her husband where the money came from and he told her that.
“My heart stopped beating. I wish I could be dead by then, but maybe God did not want me to die,” Gul said. Qandi sat close to her mother, her hazel eyes looking shyly from under her sky blue scarf. “Every time I remember that night … I die and come back to life. It was so hard.”
She asked her husband why he did it.
“He said he would sell one and save the others. ‘You would all be dead this way’ (he said.) I said to him: ‘Dying was much better than what you did’.”
Yellow gathered her community and told her brother and the village elder that her husband had sold her child behind her back. They supported her, and with their help, she secured a “divorce” for her child, but only on the condition that she repay the 100,000 afghanis (approximately $ 1,000) that her husband received.
It’s money she does not have. Her husband fled, possibly for fear that Gul might condemn him to the authorities. The Taliban government recently announced a ban on forcing women to marry or use women and girls as a token of exchange to settle disputes.
The family of the future groom, a man of about 21 or 22 years, has already tried several times to claim the girl, she says. She’s not sure how long she can ward them off.
“I’m just so desperate. If I can not raise money to pay these people and can not keep my daughter by my side, I have said I will kill myself,” Gul said. “But then I think of the other children. What is going to happen to them? Who is going to feed them?” Her oldest is 12, her youngest – her sixth – only two months.
Now alone, Gul leaves the children with her elderly mother while she goes to work in people’s homes. Her 12-year-old son is working on picking saffron after school. It is barely enough to keep them fed, and the saffron season is short, only a few weeks in the fall.
“We have nothing,” Gul said.
In another part of the same camp, father-of-four Hamid Abdullah also sold his young daughters to arranged marriages, desperate for money to treat his chronically ill wife, pregnant with their fifth child.
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Abdullah borrowed money to pay for his wife’s treatments and cannot pay them back, he said. So three years ago, he received a paycheck for his eldest daughter Hoshran, now 7, in an arranged marriage with an 18-year-old in their home state of Badghis. He is now looking for someone who can buy his second daughter, 6-year-old Nazia.
“We have no food to eat,” Abdullah explained, adding that he also had to buy medicine for his wife, who would soon need more treatment. “She needs another operation, I do not have an Afghan to pay for the doctor.”
The family that bought Hoshran is waiting until she is older before the full amount is settled, he explained.
But he needs money now for food and treatments, so he’s trying to arrange a marriage for Nazia for about 20,000-30,000 Afghans ($ 200- $ 300).
“What are we going to do? We have to do it, we have no other option,” said his wife, Bibi Jan. “When we made the decision, it was as if someone had taken a body part from me.”
In the neighboring province of Badghis, another displaced family is considering selling their son, 8-year-old Salahuddin.
His mother, Guldasta, said that after days without anything to eat, she asked her husband to take the boy to the bazaar and sell him to bring food to the others.
“I do not want to sell my son, but I have to,” the 35-year-old said. “No mother can do this to her child, but when you have no other choice, you have to make a decision against your will.”
Salahuddin blinked and looked quietly on. Surrounded by some of his seven brothers and sisters, his lip trembled slightly.
His father, Shakir, who is blind in one eye and has kidney problems, said the children had cried for days of starvation. Twice, he said, he decided to take the boy to the bazaar, and twice he staggered without being able to cope. “But now I think I have no choice but to sell him.”
Purchasing boys is thought to be less common than girls, and when it does occur, it appears to be the case of infants bought by families who have no sons. In his despair, Guldasta thought such a family might want an 8-year-old.
The desperation of millions is evident as more and more people face hunger. By the end of the year, about 3.2 million children under the age of 5 are expected to suffer from acute malnutrition, according to the UN
Nazia is one of them. The 4-year-old lay limp in his mother’s arms after visiting the World Vision health clinic.
Two years ago, Nazia was a plump toddler, her mother Fatima said. Now her emaciated limbs are just skin covering bones. Her little heart beats visibly under her chest.
“Prices are high. Flour is expensive, cooking oil is expensive, everything is expensive,” Fatima said. “All day she asks me to give her meat, yogurt and fruit. We have nothing and we have no money to buy it for her.”
Charles, World Vision’s National Director for Afghanistan, said there was a desperate need for humanitarian aid.
“I’m glad to see the promises made,” she said. But the promises “should not remain as promises, they should be seen as reality on the spot.”
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