In Afghanistan, Fathers Barter Daughters to Settle Drug Debts

A journalist spends 10 years tracking down the tragic fate of one opium bride.
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Afghan girls are increasingly becoming casualties of the county's drug trade. (Mohammad Ismail/Reuters)

I had been looking for her for 10 years. I nearly got kidnapped searching for her. I wrote a book inspired by her. And tonight, I was about to talk to her.

Darya was a green-eyed, 12-year-old schoolgirl who enjoyed playing barefoot in the sand. Her childhood was cut short when her drug dealer father sold her to a smuggler 34 years older than her.

My fingers trembled as I dialed the number her mother gave me.

We met in summer 2003 in a dusty village in Afghanistan. Darya was a green-eyed, 12-year-old schoolgirl who enjoyed playing barefoot in the sand. Her childhood was cut short when her drug dealer father sold her to a smuggler 34 years older than her. Her father was in debt to traffickers in the country, which supplies 90 percent of the world's opiates. He did what thousands of Afghan fathers are doing -- he bartered two of his daughters into marriage to relieve his debt, without the daughters' consent. I was in her village doing a story on the burgeoning $65 billion opium trade, and she was a casualty of this illegal business.

In the last 10 years since I met Darya, the number of opium brides has risen across Afghanistan, based on anecdotal evidence by activists and journalists there. Thousands of young Afghan girls are being bartered into slavery as second and third wives or trafficked across borders as prostitutes. The last decade's government eradication has made the problem worse. Farmers whose crops were destroyed chose to sell their daughters to pay back loans to traffickers. The skyrocketing addiction rate -- more than one million in a nation of 30 million are dependent on opiates -- further propels the sale of children. When addicted families no longer have the money for their habit, they sell their daughters and sometimes, also their sons.

Mrs. Parwanta, who did not want her first name mentioned for safety reasons, has been working on drug prevention and education in Afghanistan for three years. One family she talked to sold three daughters so the father could feed his addiction. "When a member of the family begins abusing drugs, everything from economic to social status breaks down. Usually, when men in the family have no other resource to fund their addiction, they prostitute and sell their children, boy or girl," she said.

Najibullah Quraishi, an Afghan journalist and filmmaker, said he met at least 100 families who sold their daughters to pay off traffickers. His award-winning 2012 documentary Opium Brides chronicles several of the girls' heartbreaking stories and the debts farming families fall into when the government eradicates their poppy farms.

In the wake of foreign troop withdrawal and the potential return of the Taliban to parts of Afghanistan, some analysts predict another opium boom. Already nine provinces that declared to be poppy-free two years ago are cultivating the plant again, mainly because of a jump in opium prices, according to United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime. The drug trade is a business dictated by supply and demand, but it's also run by mafias that flourish in violent and impoverished areas. Many farmers who returned to poppy-planting cited insecurity and a lack of agricultural options in the 2012 UNODC Opium Survey.

Fading international aid and interest in Afghanistan also threaten hard-fought laws to protect women, although the United States recently pledged another $200 million for women's development. Activists are afraid conservatives in Afghanistan's Parliament will revoke the ban on child marriages. Under the law now, families can be prosecuted for marrying daughters under age 16. "But I have yet to meet a girl who is willing to press charges against her own father," said Manizha Naderi Parand, the executive director of Women for Afghan Women. The organization provides shelters and opportunities for Afghan women seeking safety.

Bartering girls in marriage to pay off loans -- and not just drug debts -- has been practiced in the region for centuries. But it has increased exponentially due to poverty brought on by 30 years of war. Parand said no opium brides have reached out to her group for help. These young girls mostly live on the borders of the country, where trafficking is rampant and access to foreign aid and NGOs limited.

That leaves many of these girls having to submit or resist on their own. Some of them commit suicide. Nasima, a member of a women's council in Helmand province, seized a guard's gun and shot herself at one of the council meetings in 2006. Some run away and may end up in prison or in one of the few women's shelters in the country. The majority succumb to their fate as the property of smugglers. And others, like Darya, may ask aid workers or journalists to rescue them.

***

The 22-year-old Darya picked up her cell phone after the sixth ring. Her voice was louder, more confident, more patient. She had been expecting my call. We asked about each others' families and well-being. Then I apologized for failing to rescue her from the life she had feared, from Haji Sufi, the man who had become her husband and father of her children. There was a pause.

"I waited a long time for you to come and save me," she said. "But this was my destiny. I'm used to it now," she said, letting out a 10-year sigh.

In 2003, when I first met Darya, her father Touraj had disappeared to avoid traffickers hunting him down. Even after selling two of his daughters, he remained in debt to smugglers. The older daughter's husband never showed up to claim his bride. But Darya's husband, who already had another wife and eight children, wanted to take the young girl from Herat to Helmand. He spoke Pashto. She spoke Farsi.

But every time Haji Sufi came, Darya cursed her husband and ran away from him. Darya looked to me for support, knowing I had a different code of ethics and access to the outside world. One sizzling summer afternoon, I interviewed Sufi while Darya sat beside me. She grabbed my coat and trembled. "Please don't let him take me," she whispered in my ear.

That was the last time I saw her. She had come barefoot to my guide's house after I left that summer, asking that I return and free her from a forced marriage. I reported the case to the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, whose members did nothing. Afghan authorities told me she was one of thousands. They said that if she didn't go with her husband, her mother and five other siblings would suffer the consequences.

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Presented by

Fariba Nawa

is a journalist and author of Opium Nation: Child Brides, Drug Lords and One Woman's Journey through Afghanistan.

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