The Problem With One Donor's Attempt to Save the 6-year-old Girl Profiled in the New York Times Last Week

Well-wishers should allow Afghanistan's police and civil society to deal with cases of child marriage, rather than dump money on the situation.
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An Afghan girl stands among women clad in burqas during a cash for work project by humanitarian organisation CARE International in Kabul on January 6, 2010. (Ahmad Masood/Reuters)

Editor's note: A front-page article in the New York Times last week described the decision of one Afghan man, Taj Mohammad, to pay off a debt by offering his 6-year-old daughter in marriage. After the article was published, Mohammad called the Times and admitted that the debt had been paid nearly a month ago by an anonymous donor. He gave no direct answer as to why he had not told the reporter about the payment. Here, an Afghan activist who worked on the case of Naghma, the 6-year-old, explains why donations that super-cede local safety nets might do more harm than good for the countless other girls like Naghma in the camps.

In January, many of us activists in Afghanistan were enraged as we read in the BBC about a 6-year-old girl named Naghma who was going to be sold by her father to settle a family debt. Naghma's father had taken some 250,000 Rupees (around $2,500) from a relative a year back, and having suffered the insecurities of Helmand, they took refuge in one of the camps in Kabul. Now, he was prepared to give away his daughter to the other family in order to settle the debt.

I again stressed the point that we should not pay the debt because this would become a trend that not only Mohammed, but others in the camp, would repeat.

Since I work on cases of violence against women and provide support to women at risk, I immediately contacted the Ministry of Interior to intervene against the proposed sale. According to the laws of Afghanistan, selling anyone for any purpose is illegal and, as per the 2009 Elimination of Violence against Women Law (considered a huge achievement here), the father, the tribal elders who held the trial-like jirga process, and the relative who agreed to the engagement would all be jailed for at least three to six years.

To find out a way to intervene and help Naghma, a group of activists gathered and debated whether to push for the arrest of the father, pay the debt, or try to cancel the elder's decision to marry off Naghma.

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We assigned three women from our group to go and assess the situation in the camp. What we learned was very disheartening. The team came back confirming the miserable condition of the family, saying that the mother was seriously ill, Naghma's brother had frozen to death during the cold winter, and that apart from a few pieces of bread, the family hadn't eaten anything else during the two days of the visit. However, the more concerning finding was that there were a couple of motorcycles outside the tent that belonged to Naghma's brothers. The team asked why they didn't sell off their motorcycles to settle the debt, but Naghma's father, Taj Mohammad, refused to respond. For me, this set off alarm bells that we shouldn't pay the debt ourselves because Mohammad would simply try to resell her again, since he would know that there are people willing to pay off his debt.

Soon after that, I contacted a couple of emergency aid groups and asked them to help the family with their basic needs. One of the local charity foundations went to the camp and provided the family with blankets, some food, and utensils.

I kept pushing for legal action because I realized that the father had at least one more option before selling off Naghma - he could've sold those motorbikes to settle the debt, or at the very least asked for support from the charity organizations that are active in his camp. That's in addition to the fact that the tribal elders are equally complicit in this trade and should be taught a lesson that, at least in Kabul, where there are law enforcement agencies and we shouldn't allow such a public precedent of selling girls.

During this whole time, I tried and failed to get the Ministry of Interior's attention to the issue. I was eventually promised by a friend who works at the Ministry that they would intervene. We assumed that the Ministry of Interior will take care of the issue because it was made public by the BBC report.

A few months later, I was shocked when I was told that a New York Times journalist was interviewing the family. I again stressed the point that we should not pay the debt because this would become a trend that not only Mohammed, but others in the camp, would repeat.

Cases like this happen every day in Afghanistan, but when a story becomes public and then there is no intervention to stop it, it sets a precedent that anyone can sell off their daughters without being held accountable.

Right after the Times interview, I sent my colleagues to find out what happened to Naghma and went to talk to the Kabul Police Chief myself. At the station, we found out that the debt had been paid in early February 2013, based on a letter that was signed by a couple of witnesses, the man to whom Naghma's father was indebted, and the anonymous donor who paid the debt.

I submitted a complaint to the police to follow up on the case. Based on my complaint, the police went to find Mohammad, and then they called the Times and told them that the debt had already been paid. If it had not been for the police intervention after our complaint, Mohammad would never have informed the Times that he had received the payment.

I asked the police to summon the father to the station and to ask him why, if the debt was paid a month ago, he was telling the Times he was threatening to sell his daughter, but the police found out he'd already fled to Uruzgan. However, he promised the police by phone that he won't try to sell off Naghma again. The police summoned Naghma's brothers and warned them in front of me that they would all be put in jail if they harm Naghma anymore.

I also spoke to Mohammad, who said the amount of the debt was more than what he received, but that he has cancelled the engagement anyway.

Once again, I assigned a couple of other colleagues to find out from the neighbors and the camp what everyone is saying about the situation. It's clear that Naghma is not necessarily safe yet. The neighbors confirmed that Mohammad now knows the way to make money is off of threatening to sell his daughter, and almost everyone we talked to agreed that once elders come together to decide a marriage, it won't be called off unless there is strict oversight by the government and police.

We could have paid the debt right after we read the story on the BBC in January, but the whole purpose was to ensure that the father and the tribal elders were held to account. Cases like this happen every day in Afghanistan, but when a story becomes public and then there is no intervention to stop it, it sets a precedent that anyone can sell off their daughters without being held accountable. But unfortunately, the person who paid this debt was either not aware of this sensitivity or didn't feel the need to consult with the women's groups in the area.

Tying the fate of Naghma to money is not only dangerous to her, but to her sisters and every other girl in this camp. The harm is already done, and I am very concerned that if there is no oversight, the father might send Naghma to Helmand in a year or so to marry the man after all.

This whole situation also reflects the fact that the concept of "first, do no harm" is often violated by donors in Afghanistan who are after quick fixes that have big consequences for the women and girls of this country. In this case, the donor has super-ceded the law and decided the fate of Naghma, ignoring the fact that she has not saved Naghma, but has put a price on her head.

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Wazhma Frogh is the founder of the Research Institute for Women’s Peace and Security in Afghanistan and the recipient of the 2009 International Woman of Courage Award. 

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