Nine-year-old Parwana dug her heels into the ground as she tried to resist being taken from her family home after she was sold into marriage with a 55-year-old man in northwest Afghanistan last week.
Village and displaced people’s camp leaders say the numbers of young girls getting betrothed started to rise during a 2018 famine and surged this year when the rains failed once more.
Parwana’s family has lived in poverty for years, but life has gotten harder for them since the Taliban takeover of the country earlier this year and as international aid has dried up.
Abdul Malik, Parwana’s father, told CNN ahead of the sale that he was “broken” with guilt and worry, but had no choice as the family is unable to afford food.
Several months ago he sold Parwana’s 12-year-old sister, and he already knows the money from the sale of Parwana won’t last long.
Ahead of the sale, Parwana said that she was sold because the family doesn’t have money for food.
“He has sold me to an old man,” said the girl, who had dreamed of becoming a teacher.
On October 24, a man named Qorban paid 200,000 Afghanis (approximately $2,200) and was given Parwana in a ceremony in the displacement camp on the outskirts of Qala-e-Naw, in Afghanistan’s Badghis province.
“[Parwana] was cheap, and her father was very poor and he needs money,” Qorban told CNN. “She will be working in my home. I won’t beat her. I will treat her like a family member. I will be kind.”
Child marriage has been practiced in Afghanistan for centuries, but war and climate change-related poverty have driven many families to resort to striking deals earlier and earlier in girls’ lives.
Boys’ parents can drive a harder bargain and secure younger girls, spacing out the repayments.
The World Food Program warned last week that more than half the population of Afghanistan, around 22.8 million people, will face acute food insecurity from this month.
Shame and grief
In Qala-i-Naw, capital of the western province of Badghis — one of the regions worst affected by the drought — there is shame and grief.
Fahima has wept many times since her husband sold their two young daughters into marriage to survive the drought gripping western Afghanistan.
Oblivious to the deal, six-year-old Faristeh and 18-month-old Shokriya sit by her side in a mud-brick and tarpaulin shelter for displaced people.
“My husband said if we don’t give away our daughters, we will all die because we don’t have anything to eat,” Fahima said of the choice now facing thousands of Afghan families.
“I feel bad giving away my daughters for money.”
The oldest commanded a bride price of $3,350 and the toddler $2,800 — to be paid in installments over several years until the time comes to join their new families, their future husbands still minors themselves.
Among farmers driven from their homes, AFP journalists quickly found more than a dozen families who felt forced to sell their daughters into marriage.
Fahima’s 25-year-old neighbor in the camp, Sabehreh, ran up a bill at a grocer’s shop to feed her family. The business owner warned that they would be jailed if they could not repay him.
To cover the debt, the family agreed that their three-year-old daughter, Zakereh, would be betrothed to the grocer’s four-year-old son, Zabiuallah.
The infants are ignorant of their future fate, the shopkeeper having elected to wait until the pair are older before taking charge of the girl’s upkeep.
“I’m not happy to have done that, but we had nothing to eat or drink,” Sabehreh told AFP.
“If this continues, we’ll have to give up our three-month-old,” she said, sitting by the iron cradle holding the sleeping infant, as the first chills of winter penetrated the bleak camp.
Another neighbor, Gul Bibi, confirmed that many families in the camp had resorted to child marriage.
Her own daughter Asho, aged eight or nine, is betrothed to a 23-year-old man to whose family Gul Bibi was indebted. The young man is away in nearby Iran, and she dreads the day of his return.
“We know it’s not right, but we don’t have the choice,” commented Hayatullah, a passer-by who overheard the mother’s sad tale.
‘Never seen them since’
In another Qala-i-Naw camp, Mohammad Assan wiped back his tears as he showed AFP photos of his girls, Siana, 9, and Edi Gul, 6, now living far away with their young grooms.
“We’ve never seen them since,” he said. “We didn’t want to do that, but we had to feed our other children.”
Like many others, Assan and his family sought shelter in the temporary camp during the fierce fighting in recent years as the now victorious Taliban clawed back control of the country from the US-backed government.
“My daughters are surely better off over there, with food to eat,” he reasoned, trying to console himself as he showed AFP the crusts of bread his neighbors spared for him.
Assan’s wife is sick and he has medical bills to pay, so he has already begun looking for a suitor for his remaining four-year-old daughter.
“Some days I go crazy,” his wife Dad Gul said, “I leave the tent and I don’t really know where I’m going.”
The mothers’ grief is long and open-ended: the hard decision to bargain away a child, the months or years waiting for her departure, then the pain of separation.
Rabia, a 43-year-old widow, has done everything to push back the fateful day.
Her daughter, Habibeh, has turned 12 and should have gone to join her future spouse’s family a month ago, but she begged them for another year together.
“I want to stay with my mother,” whispered the skinny child.
Rabia would refund the 550 dollars she received for Habibeh’s hand if she could afford to feed the rest of her family.
‘Save my sons’
Her 11-year-old boy earns 50 cents a day working for a baker, her nine-year-old picks up trash for 30. The children are black with filth, living in a ragged tent. It will be a hard winter.
“As a mother, my heart is broken, but I have to save my sons,” she explained.
Camp elder Abdul Rahim Akbar does what he can to save his neighbors from having to make the awful choice, distributing a small ration of bread to the poorest families.
He has seen many fathers sell their daughters, including his own brother. He has even been to see the area’s new Taliban authorities to seek their assistance.
The Taliban’s interim governor for Badghis province, Maulvi Abdul Sattar, told AFP: “These child marriages are due to economic problems, not to any rule imposed by the Islamic emirate, or the Sharia.”
Even in camps outside drought-hit Badghis, child marriage is growing.
Outside Herat, the country’s third-biggest city, fathers have to harden their hearts.
“I sold my 10-year-old girl. I never would have done it if I had the choice,” said landless farmer Allahudin, admitting that if he could find a taker he’d also sell his five-year-old.
But behind the blunt talk, there is grief and shame at their failure to provide for their families and keep them together.
“I know it’s not good,” said Baz Mohammad, “But I thought we were all going to die.”