Girls as bargaining chips in Afghanistan

Zulmaï, who had contracted a loan of 8500 dollars with a family, offered in marriage to the son of his creditors his youngest Habiba.Photo: Radio-Canada / Marie-Eve Bédard

Her hair is messy red with henna. Her green eyes sparkle when she smiles and her mouth shows adult teeth that haven’t finished growing yet. If not for grime covering her bare feet in the rubbish that clutters the dirt floor, Habiba looks like a seven-year-old girl as we know them.

Zulmaï, his father, was a policeman in the Afghan national army. A job he was proud of. However, when he realized the government was going to collapse, he abandoned it.

I don’t make any money at allsighs the man with weathered skin from years of exposure to the brutal sun of southern Afghanistan.

Zulmaï lost his house and settled in a displacement camp with his family. A few curtains, earthen walls and a bit of straw serve as their shelter. To survive, the man sank into debt.

Habiba’s father, Zulmai, was a police officer in the Afghan National Army. When he realized that the government was going to be overthrown by the Taliban, he quit his job. He is here with his two daughters.Photo: Radio-Canada / Marie-Eve Bédard

He owes $8,500 to a family who are now demanding repayment. It’s his right, he says, but he has no money. He therefore offered in marriage to the son of his creditors his youngest, Habiba.

The family says it’s better that she’s already moving in with them to work instead of doing nothing with me, but I tell them that she’s too young to work.

Habiba clings to her father’s shirt to bury her face in it when she hears it. Zulmaï told her what was happening to her, without explaining to her the details of all that marriage meant.

She knows and she tells me she doesn’t want to go, she’s too small. You see how she loves me.

“She tells me she doesn’t want to go, she’s too young. You see how much she loves me,” testifies Zulmaï, about her daughter Habiba who was offered in marriage to the son of her creditors.Photo: Radio-Canada / Marie-Eve Bédard

Most of the approximately 300 people living in a misery camp in the heart of Kandahar have been displaced from Badghis province by years of fighting and poverty. The small plot of occupied land is bounded by a mountain of garbage cans rotting in the sun. The smell grabs you by the throat.

Ghuncha Gul and her children scavenge for plastic and metal. These materials, which they sell, will allow them to survive.Photo: Radio-Canada / Marie-Eve Bédard

Our whole life is this waste. We search them so we can sell the plastic and metal we find to survivesays Ghuncha Gul.

He only has boys. And he relies on them to work the smelly mounds every day. Degrading but honest work, insists Ghuncha Gul. This did not prevent the Taliban from arresting one of his sons a week ago. Rather than release him, they asked his father to leave him with them, so that he could go to Koranic school.

They told me that they would keep him at the madrassa and that he could come and see us once a week.

But it is to eat that her children demand, explains Ghuncha Gul. And for that, the father needs all their little hands at work.

Sell ​​your daughter to survive

Photo: Radio-Canada / Marie-Eve Bédard

We just watch life go by, there’s nothing herelaments Zar Bibi, covered with a blue burqa surrounded by stains. We are worth nothing to the Taliban, why would they help us?

Zar Bibi’s husband has also incurred a debt of several thousand dollars with distant relatives. A loan that must be paid off. His eight-year-old daughter Rukia will act as payment.

Whether she’s years away from puberty or not, her mother says she has no choice.

I have to give it to them, it’s an obligation. There is no other solution. »

A quote from Zar Bibi, mother of little Rukia, 8 years old

Sitting next to him, Rukia can’t help smiling and giggling. She doesn’t suspect for a second what awaits her and pays no attention to the conversation of the adults around her.

Rukia, Zar Bibi’s daughter, will be forced to marry to pay off a debt contracted by her father.Photo: Radio-Canada / Marie-Eve Bédard

If I tell her, she won’t accept it. But when they come for my daughter, I’ll give her to them whether she likes it or not, her mother said. At eight years old, it’s impossible for her to be happy about it.

When the time comes, Zar Bibi will lie to Rukia. She will tell him that she is going to live with an uncle she has never met. What happens to him afterwards will no longer be his responsibility, she says.

I have no idea how she will react there. Of course she’s too young to understand her situation. I’m sure she’s going to cry and won’t be able to accept her fate.

Zar Bibi is accompanied by her daughter Rukia and another of her children.Photo: Radio-Canada / Marie-Eve Bédard

There is no legal minimum age for marriage in Afghanistan, so as not to interfere with family affairs. This did not prevent the Taliban from issuing an edict setting the maximum amount that can be paid for a young girl.

A little more than the equivalent of 5000 Canadian dollars: this is what a young bride can be worth, according to the decree.

Before the Taliban came to power, the minimum legal age for marriage was 16.

According to a report published by UNICEF in 2018, 28% of women between the ages of 18 and 49 were married before the age of 18. The organization is concerned about a marked increase in this scourge in recent months.

When you ask Abdul Rahman how many children he has, he spontaneously answers seven. Seven boys, he says. Then he changes his mind: he also has three daughters.

Three of them are girls, and seven are boys. It’s my daughterhe said, indicating Salia with a gesture.

The little one’s face is dotted with discreet freckles that give her a mischievous look and her eyes are made up in black.

Salia’s father sold her in the village from which he had fled, riddled with debts.Photo: Radio-Canada / Marie-Eve Bédard

In the tent that serves as their home, she recites verses from the Koran. A few times a week, Salia can go to the religious school for girls near the camp. These are the only schools open, says his mother. There she learns to recite the Koran, but she does not know how to read it. Core subjects are not on the curriculum.

When asked what she would like, Salia replies shyly that she would like to learn to write.

A dream just as simple as it is inaccessible. Her father sold her in the village from which he fled, also riddled with debts.

Abdul Rahman is accompanied by three little girls: Rukia, Salia and Fawzia. Salia is his daughter.Photo: Radio-Canada / Marie-Eve Bédard

We have no excuse for our daughter. The father and mother are to blame, not her. Why does her parents have to give her like that? It is impossible to negotiate. You have to pay your debtssays Abdul Rahman.

To these little girls who will be women without ever really having been children, we apparently owe nothing at all.

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