Young Girls Sold as Brides By Desperate Afghan Poor

Years of War, Drought Force Some to Give Up Daughters

By Marc Kaufman

Washington Post Staff Writer

Sunday, February 23, 2003; Page A27

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan -- The young sisters are perky and eager to play. Zarlaska is 10 and listens intently to all that her parents are saying. Nabas Gul, 9, is more shy and hides behind her head scarf.

The two live with, and often care for, five younger siblings in a large room in an otherwise ruined building, along what was once the front line of a forgotten Afghan battle. The room is dark and bare for such a large family, but there are some quilts, a cradle and a fire that make it feel a little like home.

But it won't be the girls' home for long. When the two were just toddlers, their father needed money to pay off his debts and, seeing no other source of funds, he sold his daughters to wealthy opium poppy growers who wanted brides for their sons. Zarlaska and Nabas Gul can stay with their family until their husbands-to-be come to claim them -- usually around the time they reach puberty -- but their parents would have no right to object if the buyers wanted to take them now.

"I am a poor man, and this is how I can feed my large family," said their father, Sharafudin, himself a small-time poppy farmer who moved his family to Kandahar several years ago to escape other debt collectors. He said he knew it was wrong to sell the girls -- that some mullahs in his village had advised against it -- but that he didn't regret it.

"What else could I do?" he asked with a shrug. Then he added, "Many others are doing the same thing."

By all accounts, he is correct. There are no statistics collected to measure it, but Afghans involved with women's issues say the selling of young girls is on the rise. After a quarter-century of war, civil chaos and most recently drought, many families have been strained to the breaking point, and the outright selling of daughters for cash is one harsh and heart-rending result.

The practice has a cultural basis here in southern Afghanistan, where prospective husbands have long paid a "bride price" for their wives -- a kind of dowry that is traditionally set by the status of the bride's family and the resources of the groom's. But what was a custom has evolved into a market in which men can buy young girls from poor families. And with the country's legal system a shambles, there is nothing to stop them.

"Unfortunately, we have families now where the girls are sold as young children and the parents don't seem to think of the welfare of the girls at all," said Safia Amajar, director of the Kandahar Women's Association and a longtime educator in the city. "After so many years of war, people are poor and society is broken.

"Selling the children as brides is against Islam, and I tell people that. But there are so many other problems we face and that one is very complicated for people right now, so nothing happens to stop it."

Marrying a child and being directly paid for the sale are prohibited in Afghanistan under both the civil code and Islamic law. Marzia Basel, a former Afghan judge and founder of the Afghan Women Judges Association in Kabul, pointed out that "there are laws, and then there is custom and there is great poverty."

"The legal system has disappeared almost entirely here, and nobody would ever be charged for selling a daughter or marrying one so young," she said. "Until we have a strong government and people here have certain rights, these are the kind of things that will happen."

More than a year after a U.S.-led military campaign drove the Taliban Islamic movement from power, ties between the U.S. and Afghan governments are deep, and the welfare and reconstruction of this country is an increasingly important concern in Washington. Inevitably, unimagined issues such as daughter-selling will become points of friction.

The United States and other donor countries are especially eager to improve conditions for girls and women in post-Taliban Afghanistan, and Zarlaska and Nabas Gul are beneficiaries of that interest. The two are going to school for the first time in their lives, and as long as they continue to attend, their family gets a free can of highly prized American vegetable oil every month through the U.N. World Food Program (WFP).

But when their husbands-to-be claim them, the girls will go back to the countryside, where there are no schools for girls, and often none for boys either.

The selling of daughters reveals not only the depth of poverty in some parts of Afghanistan, but also the long-standing divide between rural and urban life. Cities such as Kabul, Kandahar and Jalalabad show signs of change on many fronts, undergoing building booms and opening their schools to eager girls. But in the countryside, ancient customs still prevail and can be stretched to cover the sale of young girls, which Afghans and foreigners alike say is something new and alarming. Isabella Castrogiovanni, child protection officer for UNICEF in Kabul, said her office has gotten many calls from relief workers around the country who are very concerned about the practice.

A report written last year for the WFP by Catherine Dunnion of the relief group GOAL Ireland, for instance, reported widespread selling of daughters in the far northern province of Jawzjan. She found villages where numerous girls aged 8 to 12 were sold, usually for the equivalent of $300 to $800.

"Everyone I talked to insisted that this activity has only been happening over the past four years of the drought," Dunnion wrote, adding that in villages that received WFP food, the number of girls sold declined.

"According to what these people said, in this culture of Islam it is permitted for girls to enter into marriage normally after their first menstruation but never before as young as 8 years. I even asked the district governor if he knew anything about this activity and it appears to be no secret what is going on. The word goes out when a man is in the district looking for vulnerable families to do business with."

But the practice doesn't occur only in the countryside. According to Padwasha, a longtime relief worker in Kandahar who is now with the Afghan-German Help Coordination Office, some wealthy men in the city are buying young girls to be their brides. She said she personally knew of a 60-year-old man who purchased an 8-year-old girl, who would be his servant until she was old enough to become his third wife.

Padwasha also said that several years ago, when she was working in a health clinic, she treated a girl of about 12 who had been taken as a wife by an important Taliban minister. The girl, Padwasha said, was pregnant.

In the case of Zarlaska and Nabas Gul, the transaction involved a meeting between their father and some of his male relatives and the men of the family of the grooms-to-be. Sharafudin said that mullahs were invited to the event, which took place in the poppy-growing area of Sangin in Helmand province and which involved some bargaining.

Because the girls were so young and wouldn't be received for some years, the price would be quite low. Sharafudin said he was paid the equivalent of about $400. If he had been able to wait longer, he said, he would have gotten more money. One husband would be about the same age as his bride, the other about 10 years older.

Although he barely knows them, Sharafudin insists that the families that will take in his daughters are good people, and he is comforted by the fact that they are distantly related to him and are in his Sakzai tribe.

He said they live in the area of Ghurak, which is in a distant, mountainous region in Kandahar province where poppy growing is widespread and government control is sporadic at best -- especially now that former Taliban forces are believed to be active in the region. In such a place, the selling of young girls is not something that could be stopped even if there were a will to do so.

Sharafudin seemed sincere when he said that he had no remorse. His wife, who sat far behind her husband and kept quiet, replied to a question about her feelings by saying that the girls' fate was in their father's hands and that selling them was his decision to make. In an earlier conversation, when Sharafudin was not present, she had spoken freely and agreed that the sale of her daughters was inevitable because the family was so poor.

Away from their parents, Zarlaska and Nabas Gul were asked what they thought about their marriage arrangements. They listened stone-faced, glanced around for help, started to giggle and ran away.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company