Afghanistan's Opium Child Brides

As the heroin trade suffers in Afghanistan, poppy farmers are marrying off their daughters, sometimes to unsavory and far-away men, to pay their debts.

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Afghan children at school / Reuters

She was a 12-year-old girl, with fiery green eyes and defiance on her face. Her father had promised her hand to a stranger from Helmand province who didn't speak her language, was more than 30 years her senior, and already had eight children. Her father had borrowed the man's money for his poppy venture. And now it was up to her to repay that debt.

Darya, as she was called in a new book by Fariba Nawa, Opium Nation: Child Brides, Drug Lords, and One Woman's Journey Through Afghanistan, represents a growing trend in Afghanistan, a trend in which families marry off their daughters to settle debts originating from the opium trade. "Opium brides," they called them.

Nawa, an Afghan-American journalist, spoke on January 10 at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars on the impact Afghan's opium economy has on girls like Darya. Nawa met the girl when she traveled to Afghanistan in the early 2000s. She witnessed a town deluged with opium addicts and countless widows whose husbands and sons had died while smuggling drugs across borders. But nothing shook her like Darya. It was the child bride who opened up to her, talked to her as if she was a savior, while others around her hid behind their fear. Darya's narrative, as well as stories of those like her, make perhaps the most heartbreaking aspect of the opium trade.

"What's the saddest part? What's the most interesting part of this story to you?" she had asked her guide before she met the girl. "It's the opium brides," her guide had answered. And when Nawa asked him to introduce her to one, he responded, "Oh, which one? There are so many of them."

Child marriage exists throughout the world. Even if the number has decreased globally over the past 30 years, 64 million women ages 20 to 24 still marry or enter a union before they turn 18, according to a UNICEF estimate. In Afghanistan, that would be about 378,000 women. Although Kabul has passed a law to curb the practice, raising marriageable ages to 18 for males and 16 for females, more than 60 percent of marriages in Afghanistan involve girls below the legal age.

Marrying girls at a young age is nothing new to Afghanistan. For centuries, marriages have been used to settle debts and improve a family's financial condition. Many poor households see their daughters as an economic burden and would rather send them off quickly to their husbands. They have also treated women and girls as a means to settle monetary disputes, making them "loan brides" in exchange for debt relief. "But those marriages are within family," Nawa said. Cousins would marry. Two brothers would betroth their son and daughter to each other. But not many would promise their daughters to strangers from a completely different town, men with wives and families, who smuggle drugs and don't speak their language. "It has been done in the past," Nawa said. "But the level and how many are being done is unprecedented inside Afghanistan right now."

Nawa attributed that spike to the opium trade, Afghanistan's biggest industry. Despite the 65 percent increase in eradication in 2011, the country still managed to roll out a growth of seven percent in net poppy cultivation. As a result, opium production in Afghanistan has exceeded global demand for the past several years. A sharp production decline in 2010 barely hurt the world's supply; there was no major shortage of heroin -- a derivative of opium poppy -- reported from the consumer markets. The country is now the center of global heroin manufacture, with roughly 300 to 500 operating laboratories producing about 380 to 400 tons of heroin per year.

The Taliban regime relied on opium production for revenues. It legalized the farming, trafficking and processing of the illicit crop. Its agricultural program consisted of flying experienced poppy farmers all over Afghanistan to teach people the techniques of opium cultivation.

It didn't take much to convince Afghans to embrace poppy. Decades of war have destroyed their traditional orchards. Cyclical drought and poverty hinder Afghan farmers from growing high-profit fruit and saffron, which require an investment in irrigation systems. In the end, it was the poppy that met all the prerequisites: higher yield with less land, little irrigation, and greater profits. With the price high and rising -- 2011 gross income from opium per hectare has skyrocketed 118 percent from the year before -- it would take a lot more than free alternative crop seeds and fertilizer distribution to wean Afghan farmers off opium production.

Presented by

Monsicha Hoonsuwan is a production assistant at The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and was a senior editor at Think, a student magazine.

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