London -- Sunday January 7, 2007
Starving Afghans sell girls of eight as brides
Villagers whose crops have failed after a second devastating drought are giving their young daughters in marriage to raise money for food
Peter Beaumont, foreign affairs editor
Also read earlier article on the sale of Afghan daughters as brides to avoid their own and their family's starvation:
Azizgul is 10 years old, from the village of Houscha in western Afghanistan. This year the wheat crop failed again following a devastating drought. Her family was hungry. So, a little before Christmas, Azizgul's mother 'sold' her to be married to a 13-year-old boy.
'I need to sell my daughters because of the drought,' said her mother Sahatgul, 30. 'We don't have enough food and the bride price will enable us to buy food. Three months ago my 15-year-old daughter married.
'We were not so desperate before. Now I have to marry them younger. And all five of them will have to get married if the drought becomes worse. The bride price is 200,000 afghanis [£2,000]. His father came to our house to arrange it. The boy pays in instalments. First he paid us 5,000 afghanis, which I used to buy food.'
Azizgul is not unique. Hers is one of a number of interviews and case studies collected by the charity Christian Aid - all of them young girls sold by their families to cope with the second ruinous drought to hit Afghanistan within three years.
While the world has focused on the war against the Taliban, the suffering of the drought-stricken villagers, almost 2.5 million of them, has largely gone unnoticed. And where once droughts would afflict Afganistan once every couple of decades, this drought has come hard on the heels of the last one, from which the villagers were barely able to recover.
While prohibited by both Afghan civil and Islamic law, arranged marriages have long been a feature of Afghan life, particularly in rural areas. What is unusual is the age of some of the girls. And the reason: to buy food to survive.
'Many families are doing this because of the drought,' Sahatgul said. 'Our daughters are our only economic asset. We will have the marriage ceremony at puberty. The groom, Rahim, has gone to Iran with his brothers to earn the money. He is working on a building site. He will come back with the rest of the money that he has earned or borrowed. He calls us every month to make sure that Azizgul is still his.'
Najibullah, 39, is a farmer. He sold his eight-year-old daughter Somaya for $3,000 (£1,560). She is engaged to a 22-year-old man from the village, Mohammed, who has also gone to Iran to earn the money to pay the bride price.
'He has already paid a deposit of $600, which we used to buy warm clothes and food,' said Najibullah. For her part, Somaya knows she is getting married but does not know what that means.
The consequences of the first drought last year - which saw the wheat crop, on which more than 80 per cent of Afghans depend, cut by half - have gone beyond child brides. In some areas, according to the charity's survey, farmers lost between 80 and 100 per cent of their crops. According to Christian Aid, the children of the affected areas have been hit in other ways: by malnutrition, increased infant mortality, and by being sent on three-hour journeys to collect water and firewood to survive.
Now many of those villagers worst affected are caught in a double bind. Without their own food to survive, aid supplies have been hampered by the winter snows, which have cut off many of the villages, while the World Food Programme's aid pipeline to areas like the Herat province (where Houscha lies) has been hampered by attacks on food convoys coming from Quetta in Pakistan by the Taliban.
'We have advisers in Afghanistan monitoring the situation,' said a spokesman for Britain's Department for International Development, 'and we have already given £1m in aid. Our view is that it is not quite a humanitarian crisis yet, but it is very, very difficult. The biggest problem facing the aid effort is not security in the country but the fact that large areas have been cut off by snow and that food aid can only be delivered to regional centres.'
The grim picture is echoed by the UN and other international organisations working in Afghanistan. According to the World Food Programme's most recent food security monitoring bulletin, food consumption in the worst affected areas has markedly deteriorated as wheat prices, where wheat is available, have increased by up to 37 per cent. But the picture is most graphically painted by the suffering of the people on the ground, in particular the children.
Zarigul is 40 and also from Houscha. 'Our children are very weak from lack of food and we are worried that they will die. We feed them boiled water and sugar. We have no vegetables for them, just potatoes. Last year we had vegetables. We need help - food for ourselves and our animals.'
Children are already dying. In a graveyard on a hill overlooking the village of Sya Kamarak in western Afghanistan, villagers gathered for the funerals of three young children who died on the same day, from malnutrition caused by the drought in western, northern and southern Afghanistan. There were no doctors' reports to confirm the cause of death - the parents were too poor to take them to the clinic, one day's walk away.
Jan Bibi, 40, said she had been feeding her three-month-old daughter Nazia with just boiled water and sugar because she had nothing else. 'My baby died because of inadequate food. I wanted to breastfeed her, but I was not producing enough milk.'
Back in Houscha, Abdul Zahir, 58, head of the men's council, summed up the desperate situation confronting families. 'There is widespread poverty. We have to sell off our children to survive. We are not proud of it, but we have to do it.'