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 9or 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 salvationbut 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 cropsabout
$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 heroinmore 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 lenderoften 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 transactionand 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 lenderabout $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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