SHEDAI CAMP, Afghanistan
In a sprawling colony of mud brick huts in western Afghanistan home to people displaced by drought and war, a woman fights to save her daughter.
Aziz Gul’s husband sold their 10-year-old child in marriage without telling his wife, taking a down payment to be able to support his family of five. Otherwise, he told her, they would all starve. He had to sacrifice one to save the others.
Much of the growing number of poor people in Afghanistan are making decisions so desperate that their nation is sinking into a vortex of poverty.
Afghanistan’s aid-dependent economy was already faltering when the Taliban seized power in mid-August amid a chaotic withdrawal of US and NATO troops. The international community has frozen Afghanistan’s assets abroad and halted its funding, refusing to work with a Taliban government given its reputation for brutality during its previous rule 20 years ago.
The consequences have been devastating for a country ravaged by war, drought and the coronavirus pandemic. State employees have not been paid for months. Malnutrition hits the most vulnerable and aid groups say more than half of the population faces severe food shortages.
“Day by day, the situation is deteriorating in this country, and in particular the children are suffering,” said Asuntha Charles, country director of aid organization World Vision in Afghanistan, which runs a health clinic for the displaced. near the western town of Herat. “Today it was heartbroken to see families willing to sell their children to feed other family members.”
The organization of weddings for very young girls is common in the region. The groom’s family pays money to close the deal, and the child usually stays with their parents until they are at least 15 years old. Yet, with many not even having the means to buy basic food, some say they would allow the bride and groom to take very young daughters or even try to sell their sons.
Gul, unusual in this deeply patriarchal, male-dominated society, resists. Married at 15, she says she would kill herself if her daughter, Qandi Gul, was taken away.
When her husband told her that he had sold Qandi, “my heart stopped beating. I wish I could have died then, but maybe God didn’t want me to die, ”said Gul, with Qandi by his side, staring shyly under his sky blue scarf. “Every time I remember that night … I die and come back to life.”
Her husband told her he sold one to save the others, saying they would all have died otherwise.
“Dying was much better than what you did,” she told him.
Gul rallied her brother and the village elders and, with their help, obtained a “divorce” for Qandi, on the condition that she repay the 100,000 afghanis (about $ 1,000) her husband received. It’s money she doesn’t have.
Her husband fled, perhaps fearing that Gul would report him to the authorities. The Taliban government recently banned forced marriages.
Gul says she doesn’t know how long she will be able to put off the family of the future groom, a man around 21.
“I am so desperate. If I can’t provide the money to pay these people and I can’t keep my daughter by my side, I said I would kill myself, ”she said. “But then I think of the other kids. What will happen to them? Who will feed them? Her eldest is 12 years old, her youngest – her sixth – barely two months old.
In another part of the camp, Hamid Abdullah, a father of four, also sold his young daughters to arranged marriages, desperately seeking money to care for his chronically ill wife, pregnant with their fifth child.
He cannot repay the money he borrowed to fund his wife’s treatments, he said. So, three years ago, he received a down payment for his eldest daughter Hoshran, now aged 7, in an arranged marriage with a person now aged 18.
The family who bought Hoshran wait until she is older before they pay the full amount and take her. But Abdullah needs the money now, so he’s trying to organize a wedding for his second daughter, Nazia, 6, for around 20,000-30,000 Afghanis ($ 200-300).
“We have nothing to eat,” and he cannot afford his wife’s doctor, he said.
His wife, Bibi Jan, said they had no other choice but it was a difficult decision. “When we made the decision, it was like someone had taken part of my body.”
In neighboring Badghis province, another displaced family is considering selling their 8-year-old son, Salahuddin.
Her mother, Guldasta, said that after days without eating anything, she told her husband to take Salahuddin to the bazaar and sell him to bring food to others.
“I don’t want to sell my son, but I have to,” said the 35-year-old. “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 watched silently, his lip quivering slightly.
Her father, Shakir, who is blind in one eye and suffering from kidney problems, said the children had been crying from hunger for days. Twice he decided to take Salahuddin to the bazaar, and twice he hesitated. “But now I think I have no other choice.”
Buying from boys is believed to be less common than for girls, and when it does, it appears to be families without sons who are buying infants. In her desperation, Guldasta thought that maybe such a family might want an 8-year-old.
The desperation of millions is clear as more people face hunger, with some 3.2 million children under 5 suffering from acute malnutrition, UN says
Charles, World Vision’s country director for Afghanistan, said humanitarian aid funds were desperately needed.
“I’m happy to see the promises are made,” she said. But the promises “must not remain promises, they must be seen as a reality on the ground”.
Abdul Qahar Afghan in Shedai Camp, Afghanistan and Rahim Faiez in Islamabad, Pakistan contributed.
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