In a sprawling settlement of mud brick huts in western Afghanistan housing people displaced by drought and war, a woman is fighting to save her daughter.
Aziz Gul’s husband sold their 10-year-old into marriage without telling his wife, taking a down payment so he could feed his family of five children. Otherwise, he told her, they would all starve. He had to sacrifice one to save the rest.
Many of Afghanistan’s increasing number of destitute people are taking such desperate decisions as their nation spirals downwards into a vortex of poverty.
Arranging marriages for very young girls is common in the region. The groom’s family pays money to seal the deal, and the child usually stays with her parents until she is at least around 15.
Yet with many unable to afford even basic food, some say they’d allow prospective grooms to take very young girls or are even trying to sell their sons.
Gul, unusually in this deeply patriarchal, male-dominated society, is resisting. Married off herself at 15, she says she will kill herself if her daughter, Qandi Gul, is taken away.
When her husband told her he had sold Qandi, “my heart stopped beating. I wished I could have died at that time, but maybe God didn’t want me to die,” Gul said, with Qandi by her side peering shyly from beneath her sky-blue headscarf.
Her husband told her he sold one to save the others, saying they all would have died otherwise.
Gul rallied her brother and village elders and with their help secured a “divorce” for Qandi, on condition she repays the 100,000 afghanis (about $1,000) her husband received. It’s money she doesn’t have.
Her husband fled, possibly fearing Gul might denounce him to authorities. The Taliban government recently banned forced marriages.
Gul says she isn’t sure how long she can fend off the family of the prospective groom, a man of around 21.
In another part of the camp, father-of-four Hamid Abdullah was also selling his young daughters into arranged marriages, desperate for money to treat his chronically ill wife, pregnant with their fifth child.
He can’t 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 7, in an arranged marriage to a now 18-year-old.
The family who bought Hoshran are waiting until she is older before settling the full amount and taking her. But Abdullah needs money now, so he is trying to arrange a marriage for his second daughter, 6-year-old Nazia, for about 20,000-30,000 afghanis ($200-$300).
“We don’t have food to eat,” and he can’t pay his wife’s doctor, he said.
Afghanistan’s aid-dependent economy was already teetering when the Taliban seized power in mid-August amid a chaotic withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops.
The international community froze Afghanistan’s assets abroad and halted funding, unwilling 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 battered by war, drought, and the coronavirus pandemic.
State employees haven’t been paid in months. Malnutrition stalks the most vulnerable, and aid groups say more than half the population faces acute food shortages.
“The situation is deteriorating in this country, and especially children are suffering,” said Asuntha Charles, national director of the World Vision aid organization in Afghanistan, which runs a health clinic for displaced people near the western city of Herat.
“Today I have been heartbroken to see that the families are willing to sell their children to feed other family members,” she added.
Buying boys is believed to be less common than girls, and when it does take place, it appears to be cases of families without sons buying infants.
The desperation of millions is clear as more and more people face hunger, with some 3.2 million children under 5 facing acute malnutrition, according to the U.N.
Charles called on the “humanitarian community to stand up and stay with the people of Afghanistan,” with funds desperately needed.