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Opium Brides of Afghanistan

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    In the country s poppy-growing provinces, farmers are being forced to sell their daughters to pay loans. The Opium Brides of Afghanistan By Sami Yousafzai and
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 2, 2008
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      In the country's poppy-growing provinces, farmers are being forced to
      sell their daughters to pay loans.

      The Opium Brides of Afghanistan
      By Sami Yousafzai and Ron Moreau
      Apr 7, 2008

      Photos: Teru Kuwayama (left); Veronique de Viguerie / WPN

      Flowers of War: Afghan soldiers during an attack on Taliban fighters
      guarding a field (left); a once-prosperous family, struggling after
      losing its poppy income, was forced to give away their daughter, pictured

      Khalida's father says she's 9—or maybe 10. As much as Sayed Shah loves
      his 10 children, the functionally illiterate Afghan farmer can't keep
      track of all their birth dates. Khalida huddles at his side, trying to
      hide beneath her chador and headscarf. They both know the family can't
      keep her much longer. Khalida's father has spent much of his life
      raising opium, as men like him have been doing for decades in the
      stony hillsides of eastern Afghanistan and on the dusty southern
      plains. It's the only reliable cash crop most of those farmers ever
      had. Even so, Shah and his family barely got by: traffickers may
      prosper, but poor farmers like him only subsist. Now he's losing far
      more than money. "I never imagined I'd have to pay for growing opium
      by giving up my daughter," says Shah.

      The family's heartbreak began when Shah borrowed $2,000 from a local
      trafficker, promising to repay the loan with 24 kilos of opium at
      harvest time. Late last spring, just before harvest, a government
      crop-eradication team appeared at the family's little plot of land in
      Laghman province and destroyed Shah's entire two and a half acres of
      poppies. Unable to meet his debt, Shah fled with his family to
      Jalalabad, the capital of neighboring Nangarhar province. The
      trafficker found them anyway and demanded his opium. So Shah took his
      case before a tribal council in Laghman and begged for leniency.
      Instead, the elders unanimously ruled that Shah would have to
      reimburse the trafficker by giving Khalida to him in marriage. Now the
      family can only wait for the 45-year-old drugrunner to come back for
      his prize. Khalida wanted to be a teacher someday, but that has become
      impossible. "It's my fate," the child says.

      Afghans disparagingly call them "loan brides"—daughters given in
      marriage by fathers who have no other way out of debt. The practice
      began with the dowry a bridegroom's family traditionally pays to the
      bride's father in tribal Pashtun society. These days the amount ranges
      from $3,000 or so in poorer places like Laghman and Nangarhar to
      $8,000 or more in Helmand, Afghanistan's No. 1 opium-growing province.
      For a desperate farmer, that bride price can be salvation—but at a
      cruel cost. Among the Pashtun, debt marriage puts a lasting stain on
      the honor of the bride and her family. It brings shame on the country,
      too. President Hamid Karzai recently told the nation: "I call on the
      people [not to] give their daughters for money; they shouldn't give
      them to old men, and they shouldn't give them in forced marriages."

      All the same, local farmers say a man can get killed for failing to
      repay a loan. No one knows how many debt weddings take place in
      Afghanistan, where 93 percent of the world's heroin and other opiates
      originate. But Afghans say the number of loan brides keeps rising as
      poppy-eradication efforts push more farmers into default. "This will
      be our darkest year since 2000," says Baz Mohammad, 65, a
      white-bearded former opium farmer in Nangarhar. "Even more daughters
      will be sold this year." The old man lives with the anguish of selling
      his own 13-year-old daughter in 2000, after Taliban leader Mullah
      Mohammed Omar banned poppy growing. "Lenders never show any mercy,"
      the old man says. Local farmers say more than one debtor has been
      bound hand and foot, then locked into a small windowless room with a
      smoldering fire, slowly choking to death.

      While law enforcers predict yet another record opium harvest in
      Afghanistan this spring, most farmers are struggling to survive. An
      estimated 500,000 Afghan families support themselves by raising
      poppies, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. Last year
      those growers received an estimated $1 billion for their crops—about
      $2,000 per household. With at least six members in the average family,
      opium growers' per capita income is roughly $300. The real profits go
      to the traffickers, their Taliban allies and the crooked officials who
      help them operate. The country's well-oiled narcotics machine
      generates in excess of $4 billion a year from exports of processed
      opium and heroin—more than half of Afghanistan's $7.5 billion GDP,
      according to the UNODC.

      Efforts to promote other crops have failed. Wheat or corn brings $250
      an acre at best, while poppy growers can expect 10 times that much.
      Besides, poppies are more dependable: hardier than either wheat or
      corn and more tolerant of drought and extreme heat and cold. And in a
      country with practically no government-funded credit for small
      farmers, opium growers can easily get advances on their crops. The
      borrower merely agrees to repay the cash with so many kilos of opium,
      at a price stipulated by the lender—often 40 percent or more below
      market value. Islam forbids charging interest on a loan, but
      moneylenders in poppy country elude the ban by packaging the deal as a
      crop-futures transaction—and never mind that the rate of return is
      tantamount to usury.

      Opium is thriving in the south, particularly the provinces of Helmand
      and Nimruz, where Taliban fighters keep government eradication teams
      at bay. But times are perilously hard for farmers in other places like
      Nangarhar, a longtime poppy-growing province on the mountainous
      Pakistani border. Mohammad Zahir Khan, a Nangarhar sharecropper in his
      late 40s, borrowed $850 against last spring's harvest, promising 10
      kilos of opium to the lender—about $1,250 on the local market. The
      cash bought food and other necessities for his family and allowed him
      to get seed, fertilizer and help tending his three sharecropped acres.
      In the spring he collected 45 kilos of raw opium paste, half of which
      went immediately to the landowner.

      But before Khan could repay the loan, his wife fell seriously ill with
      a kidney ailment. She needed better medical care than Nangarhar could
      offer, so he rushed her across the Pakistani border to a private
      hospital in Peshawar. It cost almost every cent they had, and Khan
      knew his opium debt would only grow. Worse, the provincial governor, a
      former warlord named Gul Agha Sherzai, chose that moment to declare
      his own war on drugs, jailing hundreds of local farmers who were
      caught planting opium. Nangarhar had 45,000 acres in poppies a year
      ago; today drug experts say the province is totally clean.

      Late last year Khan reluctantly gave his 16-year-old daughter, Gul
      Ghoti, in marriage to the lender's 15-year-old son. Besides forgiving
      Khan's debt, the creditor gave him a $1,500 cash dowry. Khan calls him
      an honorable man. "Until the end of my life I will feel shame because
      of what I did to my daughter," Khan says. "I still can't look her in
      the eye." But at least she was old enough to marry, he adds. He claims
      one local farmer recently had to promise the hand of his 2-month-old
      daughter to free his family from an opium debt. Khan is raising wheat
      this year. He doubts it will support his family, and he worries that
      eventually one of his two younger daughters will become a loan bride.
      Neither of them is yet in her teens.

      Eradication efforts aren't the only thing pushing opium marriages.
      Poppy acreage is expanding in Helmand province, but loan brides are
      common there, too, says Bashir Ahmad Nadim, a local journalist. He
      says moneylenders in Helmand are always looking for "opium flowers"—
      marriageable daughters ready for plucking if crop failure or family
      emergency forces a borrower into default. In the south's drug-fueled
      economy, fathers of opium brides often get hefty cash bonuses on top
      of having their debts forgiven.

      But in Nangarhar, even former lenders are feeling the pinch. Enaghul,
      40, used to be a relatively prosperous poppy farmer. Today he has
      little to show for his past wealth aside from his 17-year-old
      daughter-in-law, Shaukina, and a 2-month-old grandson. "She is pretty
      and works hard in the fields," Enaghul says, still happy to have won
      her for his son. Four years ago he gave Shaukina's father a loan in
      return for a promise of 30 kilos of opium, never imagining that both
      their fields would be eradicated before harvest. That's how Enaghul's
      son married Shaukina. But with the opium ban, Enaghul says his family
      is barely surviving. They make less than $2 a day growing tomatoes and
      potatoes. Enaghul casts an appraising eye on his youngest daughter,
      Sharifa, 5, as she runs after a goat in the courtyard of their
      mud-and-brick home. "I think she would fetch between $500 and $600,"
      he says. With luck, he says, he might be able to postpone the wedding
      five or six years.

      Some Western officials promise the hard times won't last much longer.
      Loren Stoddard, Afghanistan director for the U.S. Agency for
      International Development, says crop-substitution programs are already
      yielding results. As many as 40,000 farming families in Nangarhar are
      receiving some kind of compensation for the loss of opium revenues, he
      says, and USAID has financed the planting of 1.3 million fruit, nut
      and other trees in the province since 2006, with plans for an
      additional 300,000 this year. There's even a new mill producing 30
      tons of chicken feed a day. "Good things are happening here," Stoddard
      says. "I think Nangarhar will take off in the next two years."

      Many farmers doubt they can hold out that long. Kachkol Khan looks
      around his single acre of wheat in Pa Khel village and asks how he
      will feed his family of seven. "What we earn from this wheat won't
      feed us for one month," he says. Six months ago he gave the hand of
      his 13-year-old daughter, Bibi Gula, to settle an opium debt of $700,
      with roughly $1,500 cash thrown in. That's what they're living on now.
      At least his creditor agreed to let Gula stay home until she turns 15.
      "I'm not happy with what I did," Khan says. "Every daughter has
      ambitions to marry with dignity. I fear she'll be treated as a
      second-class wife and as a maid." Even worse is his worry that the
      same future may await his two younger daughters, 11 and 10.

      Angiza Afridi, 28, has spent much of the past year interviewing more
      than 100 families about opium weddings in two of Nangarhar's 22
      districts. The schoolteacher and local TV reporter already had
      firsthand knowledge of the tragedy. Five years ago one of her younger
      aunts, then 16, was forced to marry a 55-year-old man to pay off an
      older uncle's opium debt, and three years ago an 8-year-old cousin was
      also given in marriage to make good on a drug loan. "This practice of
      marrying daughters to cover debts is becoming a bad habit," says Afridi.

      Even so, the results of her survey shocked her. In the two districts
      she studied, approximately half the new brides had been given in
      marriage to repay opium debts. The new brides included children as
      young as 5 years old; until they're old enough to consummate their
      marriages, they mostly work as household servants for their in-laws.
      "These poor girls have no future," she says. The worst of it may be
      the suicides. Afridi learned of one 15-year-old opium bride who
      poisoned herself on her wedding day late last year and an 11-year-old
      who took a fatal dose of opium around the same time. Her new in-laws
      were refusing to let her visit her parents.

      Gul Ghoti is on her first visit home since her wedding six months ago.
      She says it's a relief to be back with her father and mother in their
      two-room mud-and-brick house, if only temporarily. "My heart is still
      with my parents, brothers and sisters," she says. "Only my body is
      with my husband's family." She says she personally knows of two opium
      brides who killed themselves. "One of the girls had been badly beaten
      by her husband's brother, the other by her husband," she says. Ghoti
      says she's considered suicide, too, but Islam stopped her. "I pray
      that God doesn't give me a daughter if she ends up like me."

      With Marie Bourreau in Nangarhar



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