SHAIDAI, Afghanistan – Shy, with long locks of rusty henna-dyed hair, Benazir fidgets with a handful of gravel when the subject of his marriage is brought up.
She looks at the ground and buries her head in her knees when asked if she knows she has been promised to another family to marry one of their sons.
Her father says he will receive the equivalent of $ 2,000 for Benazir, but he did not explain the details or what is expected of her. She’s too young to understand, he said.
Benazir is 8 years old.
It is traditional for families here to pay a bride’s family a dowry for a wedding, but it is extreme to arrange a marriage for such a young child. And the economic collapse that followed the Taliban’s takeover in August forced already poor families to make desperate choices.
The days are filled with hardship for the children here in Shaidai, a desert community on the mountainous edge of Herat, in western Afghanistan.
Children like Benazir and his siblings beg in the streets or collect garbage to heat their simple mud houses, because they don’t have enough money to buy wood.
Her father, Murad Khan, looks much older than he was 55 – his face is worn with worry. A day laborer who hasn’t found a job for months and with eight children to feed, his decision to sell Benazir to marriage at such a young age comes down to a cold calculation.
“We are 10 people in the family. I’m trying to keep 10 alive by sacrificing one, ”he said in Pashto.
Khan said the arrangement called for Benazir to marry a boy from an Iranian family when she hits puberty. He has not yet received the money for his dowry, and said as soon as he does, Benazir will be taken away by the man who bought her.
“I told the traders that I sold my daughter and that I would pay them back, so they loaned me food.”
“He’s just going to take her hand and pull her away from me,” he said. “He’ll take her out and say, ‘She’s ours now.'”
A combination of a severe drought that has reduced livestock and farmer yields, and the freezing of foreign aid by governments that do not recognize the new Taliban government, have pushed poor Afghans to the brink.
Promising their daughters for marriage early, in return for money, is seen as a lifeline for families who barely have a piece of bread to eat.
The United Nations Population Fund has warned it is “deeply concerned” by reports that child marriage is on the rise in Afghanistan.
“We have received credible information from families offering girls as young as 20 days old for a future marriage in exchange for a dowry,” UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore said in a statement.
“A piece of your heart”
Benazir’s best friend, Saliha, is only 7 years old and was sold for the same price, $ 2,000, to a relative of her father’s in-laws in the northern province of Faryab.
Benazir and Saliha already have responsibilities in the community. They go together to a local mosque to fetch water, a shortage in the desert, and bring the big jugs home.
Like her older neighbors, Saliha also weaves yarn – pulling on a cloud of tangled wool brought in by traders and twisting it into neat spools of twine. It takes four days to refine eight pounds of material, which earns him a dollar.
But the family is in debt. Saliha’s father, Muhammed Khan, says he took out loans from shop owners in the town.
“I told the traders that I sold my daughter and that I will pay them back, so they loaned me food,” he said.
The money he earns from selling Saliha will help him pay it off and feed his four siblings.
It was a heartbreaking decision, he said.
“Your children are a piece of your heart. If I didn’t have to, why would I? ” he says.
Afghanistan was a poor country before the Taliban took power, backed by foreign aid. According to the World Bank, about 75% of public finances have been fueled by grants from the United States and other countries.
When the US military pulled out and the Taliban’s hardline Islamist government took over, much of the money for that aid was frozen. Wages dried up and the flow of money suddenly stopped, creating a humanitarian crisis.
And that is expected to worsen as the crisis worsens, with more than half of the Afghan population facing hunger and 3.2 million children suffering from malnutrition, according to the United Nations World Food Program.
The agency said it had never seen so many people facing emergency food insecurity levels in Afghanistan, with all 34 provinces affected.
In the relatively wealthy province of Herat in western Afghanistan, an emergency food center is running out of beds.
The facility run by Doctors Without Borders at Herat Regional Hospital treats the most severely malnourished babies, such as the tiny Farzana, who at 8 months weighs only 6 ½ pounds. She is one of 75 babies treated here.
His father is a butcher, but his business has collapsed so badly that he can no longer afford to feed his family.
Farzana lies quietly, a pale, thin little arm sticking out and her big eyes not blinking.
“What we are seeing are very small children, who are not breastfed well by mothers because the mothers are all so malnourished that they cannot produce enough breast milk to feed them,” Gaia said. Giletta, the head nurse of pediatrics with the doctors. Sans Frontières at the feeding center.
Due to disruptions in health care and aid agencies across the region, Giletta said, many children are not receiving primary care. For many of those who arrive, it is already too late, with a child dying almost every day here.
Another baby in the center, Ali, is small and pale, barely mustering the energy to cry. Her mother, Smita Umar, was herself malnourished, so Ali was born too weak to suckle. At 4 months old, he has already spent a total of three months at the center.
“My husband is a house painter,” Umar said. “But he sold his tools so that we could feed the baby. Things have gotten worse since the arrival of the Taliban. The little we had went to zero.
Richard Engel, Gabe Joselow and Ahmed Mengli reported from Herat. Yuliya Talmazan from London.