Afghan parents are selling their children into marriage and labour to stave off poverty

Those displaced by insecurity and economic adversity are trafficking offspring as young as seven-years-old

Seven-year-old Mina (name changed) and her mother Qamar Gul outside their shelter, a makeshift house, in Shaidahi area on the outskirts of Herat city. Hikmat Noori for The National
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As the people of the ancient western Afghan city of Herat settle in for a cold December evening, the residents of a relatively new tent settlement brace themselves for a harsh night nearby.

“We own nothing, except the two tents given to us by DRC (Danish Refugee Council). There’s no water, no clothes, the winter days are getting colder,” says Qamar Gul, a 35-year-old widow from Badghis province, from inside her small white tent located in the Shaidahi area on the outskirts of Herat city.

The tent is reached after navigating a sea of thousands of temporary houses and mud homes in the makeshift settlement that extends for over eight kilometres. It is estimated that 50,000 Afghans displaced internally by war and drought moved to Herat this year, joining 52,000 others already living in those camps.

Gul and her two children welcome us into the shelter they have called their home for the past year and a half. The family was forced to leave their village after the Taliban killed her husband, who served in the Afghan police, two years ago. However, having to leave her home was not the most difficult decision Gul had to make.

Faced with extreme poverty, lack of food, water, clothes and a prospect of another harsh winter led Gul to sell her youngest child, seven-year-old Mina to a rich man in their home province five months ago. Her name has been changed for security reasons.

“When I lost my husband, I didn’t have anything. We didn’t have land or a house, or food to eat. She didn’t even have socks to cover her feet. She would cry for food and I didn’t know what to do,” Gul says, responding fiercely to questions and defending her actions.

“We were not in a good situation.”

Massive encampments in Shaidahi area on Herat city of Afghans displaced internally due to conflict and drought. It is estimated that close to 100,000 IDPs live similar makeshift homes in camps that stretch across 10 kilometers on the outskirts of Herat city. [Photo by Hikmat Noori]
Massive encampments in Shaidahi area on Herat city of Afghans displaced internally due to conflict and drought. It is estimated that close to 100,000 IDPs live similar makeshift homes in camps that stretch across 10 kilometers on the outskirts of Herat city. [Photo by Hikmat Noori]

Mina sits next to her mother quietly, staring at her hands, refusing to make eye contact with anyone in the white fabric room. Tears well-up in her eyes as her mother, also in tears, narrates her story. Gul struck a deal with a distant relative to sell Mina for a sum of AFN  210,000 ($2,680), of which they received AFN 5,000 ($64) in advance with the full amount to be paid when she was sent to his house.

The deal was struck with the help of a relative from this man's village in Badghis province. After receiving the surety amount, Mina's uncle took her to that village where she stayed with the relative for a few days, ahead of the "engagement ceremony". It was during this period that the mother had a change of heart about selling her and reached out local activists who helped to bring Mina back by crowd-sourcing the amount needed to buy her back from this man.

They eventually brought the girl back and put the rest of the money was put into an account in Mina's mother's name to be used for Mina's education. However, there is no school for several kilometres. The only school in the camp is run by Unicef and located in a remote part of the camp, so she is not currently enrolled.

The buyer claimed to have brought Mina as a bride for his teenage son, but activists who helped to save her suspect that Mina could have been vulnerable to exploitation and abuse as well.

“Of course, it is an injustice to marry a seven years old girl but we didn’t have any other option. We would’ve died if we didn’t get that money,” she says.

As the country slips into insecurity and extreme economic adversity, many families have been found to have engaged in trafficking their own children. According to US State Department data, international organisations working in IDP camps have noted a significant increase in displaced parents trafficking their children to pay off debts.

Between July and September 2018, one organisation reported 161 cases of IDPs selling children into either marriage or servitude, according to the report. Activists and NGOs, even though numbers are hard to come by because of a lack of reporting, say they have observed an increase in the last two years as the IDP population has grown.

Responding to this need, Afghan politicians passed the much-awaited Child Protection Act on Saturday, which among many components includes a focus on child trafficking.

“This law contains 16 chapters and 118 articles that cover a comprehensive range of issues that affect Afghan children,” says Sayed Khushal Haris, a social protection specialist with the Afghan Ministry of Labour.

Mr Haris has worked closely on the development of the draft bill for child protection over the last five years.

“There are already provisions for countering child trafficking in Law on Human Abduction passed in 2008, and an amendment in the 2018 penal code also addresses this issue,” he says. The current law provides a punishment of five to eight years imprisonment depending on the severity of the cases.

However, despite tough laws, Mr Haris admits the impact leaves more to be desired. “We realise that that there is a gap in the investigation and implementation of the laws due to a number of factors, mostly because we don’t have a commission or body to monitor the implementation of the laws,” he says.

“We are currently working on a National Child Protection Policy that will suggest creating such a committee for accountability.”

Given the nature of the Afghan society where a social stigma prevents the reporting of such crimes, much of the onus of child protection depends on the involvement of local communities, Mr Haris says.

“We are trying to develop a process under this policy for response mechanism, that would provide a space even or the child or a community member to report such cases directly,” he shares.

A similar initiative by Unicef, the UN children’s agency, to set up a network of government agencies and NGOs, called the Child Protection Action Network, attempts to help in cases of child protection.

However, issues of security, lack of trained professionals and socio-cultural norms have prevented its implementation, resulting in an increasing cases of child trafficking, many of which go unreported. Numbers also vary widely depending on who you speak to. The Ministry of Labour say there were less than 20 cases of child trafficking in 2018, while the USAID report mentions 161 cases reporting by just one organisation in that same year.

Fortunately for Mina, her story caught the attention of a local philanthropist and activists who intervened and helped rescue her by paying off her buyer.

“I regretted it the moment I made the decision. I could not send her to him. I knew I had to protect her,” Gul says, holding her daughter close.

“I am happy I didn’t have to go. I didn’t want that life,” Mina says, speaking from a seated position on the floor of the small, cold tent.

“I am happy here.”