"We didn't want to do this, but we have to feed our other children," Muhammad Assan told AFP, as he showed reporters pictures of his daughters, Siana and Edi Gul, aged nine and six respectively. Assan lives in an internal refugee camp in Qala-i-Naw in Badghis province. Like many other parents, he has been forced to sell his daughters in order to survive.
Assan, with tears in his eyes, says he has not seen them since they were bought. "My daughters are probably better off now, with food," he told AFP. In addition to the famine, Assan has to pay for his wife's medical treatment and is already looking for a husband for her only remaining daughter.
Afghan families, especially the poorest, have opted to sell their daughters into marriage. In some refugee camps, such as Qala-i-Naw, girls are sold for as little as $550 and as much as $4,000. The minimum legal age set by the former government for girls to marry was 16, although in many areas, especially the more rural ones, this law was not respected.
A 25-year-old woman from the same IDP camp has been forced to follow in the footsteps of Assan's family. To cover a food debt, she compromised her three-year-old daughter. "I'm not happy I did that, but we had nothing to eat or drink," she tells the news agency.
Another eight-year-old girl from Qala-i-Naw is engaged to a 23-year-old man. The girl's family was in doubt about her future husband. "We know it's not right, but we have no choice," says a refugee in the camp.
While the girls are given in marriage, the boys work in precarious conditions to support their families. Baker's helper for 50 cents a day, scavenging for 30 cents a day, are some of the jobs children in Qala-i-Naw take on, while their sisters are forced to marry.
Child marriage is spreading across the territory as the food crisis deepens. Even in Herat, one of the country's largest and most important cities, several cases of girls being sold have already been reported. "I sold my 10-year-old daughter. I would never have done it if I had had the choice," admits one farmer. This scourge is present in all parts of Afghanistan. In one western region, Khalid Ahmad told The Wall Street Journal that he had to sell his 3-year-old daughter to pay off a debt. "There is no choice but to take my daughter," he says.
Although child marriage has been a common practice in Afghanistan for years, since the severe drought that hit the country in 2018, the number of girls married increased as a result of famine. In that year, according to a UNICEF report, 42 per cent of Afghan families had a daughter married before the age of 18. In addition to the trauma of marrying young and forced, girls face sexual and physical violence from husbands who are sometimes much older than they are. They are also at great risk during pregnancy and childbirth.
Many families, especially those living in IDP camps, were forced to sell their girls to pay off debts or simply survive. In Kabul, during this major drought, a baby girl was sold before birth for 25,000 Afghanis (about 290 euros at the time), as reported by the national media TOLO News. In cities, such as the Afghan capital, in addition to resorting to this custom, many families abandoned their newborn babies on hospital maternity wards.
Now, with the Emirate's white flag flying across the country, women's rights have regressed and the situation for girls, far from changing, will only get worse. "These child marriages are due to economic problems, it is not a rule imposed by the Taliban," says the governor of Badghis.
However, there is no place in the Taliban executive's priorities for measures to end this scourge. Also noteworthy is the Taliban's own violence and misogyny against women. Women's rights activists, like other groups, are targeted by the Islamists.
Also, after Taliban leaders seized the provinces of Badakhshan and Takhar, the fighters issued an order to local religious authorities to provide them with a list of girls over the age of 15 to marry the militants, as reported by The Conversation.
As a result, cases of underage girls being married off will spread alarmingly throughout the territory. In particular, displaced girls are the most likely to marry. Currently, according to UNHCR figures, there are 677,832 internal refugees in Afghanistan.
Families are forced to resort to this because of the economic outlook, which has worsened further since the Taliban came to power. The Afghan economy, which was already very fragile under the previous Afghan government, has suffered a major blow following the insurgents' takeover of Kabul.
"Afghanistan is facing an epic humanitarian crisis and is on the brink of a development catastrophe," UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said recently. Meanwhile, Josep Borrell, the head of European diplomacy, has warned that, if the situation does not change, "with winter approaching, Afghanistan risks becoming a humanitarian catastrophe".
The charity CARE echoes Borrell's words. "The impending brutal Afghan winter is also of great concern. Without the necessary funding and time for supplies to reach remote areas before heavy snowfall blocks access, communities will face catastrophic food shortages," explained Victor Moses, director of CARE Afghanistan. "We deeply fear what lies ahead for the most vulnerable Afghans," he added.
"I am sure the winter will kill my children. This year will be the coldest year with no food and the highest prices. Poor people will never be able to live in these conditions," laments a 52-year-old Afghan woman, as reported by ReliefWeb, one of the world's leading humanitarian websites. The effects of climate change are a key factor in the food crisis facing the country.
According to ReliefWeb, food security in the country will deteriorate between November 2021 and February 2022, while 55% of the population, approximately 23 million people, are expected to suffer from water hunger during those months. Meanwhile, a report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) reaffirms the humanitarian portal's information. The UN agency states that more than half of the Afghan population will face famine from November onwards.
The brutality of the Taliban regime does not intimidate Afghan women, who continue to take to the streets of the main cities. Since the insurgents seized power, Afghan women have demonstrated several times, but with the same objective: to defend their rights. Their rights to work, to study, to go out on the streets without a man, to participate in political life. In short, the right to exist and to have a voice.
In the latest protests, as well as demanding all of the above, they have also called on the international community to intervene in the crisis in Afghanistan. "Why does the world watch us die in silence?", "We ask the UN to defend our rights", were some of the slogans they wrote on their banners.