Daughters for Debts

Zeva's eyes filled with tears as her father took her by the arm and handed the 10-year-old over to the man from whom he had borrowed 50,000 afghanis, or about 1,000 US dollars.

"I cannot pay you in any other way. Take my daughter," said Gul Miran, 42, a farmer in Nangarhar province.

Like many other farmers in Afghanistan, Gul Miran had planned to pay back the loan with the proceeds from his crop of poppies, which would eventually be turned into heroin. But as part of its stepped-up effort to combat the drug trade in the country, the government had ploughed under his fields and Gul Miran was left with nothing.

"I accepted the girl in return for my loan," said Haji Naqibullah, who had advanced Gul Miran the money. "We had an agreement. He would [pay me back] regardless of whether his crops were wiped out by the weather or by the government.

"In a year or 18 months I will marry her off to my youngest son," he said. "He is 19 years old and has been married to his first wife for two years but has not had a child yet."

Payenda Gul, who grows poppies in the Shinwar district, was forced to give his 17-year-old daughter to a divorced man of 38 in order to pay his debt.

"When you have an agreement with an opium dealer, nothing but the opium can be paid but they cannot refuse the daughters," he said. "It is a way in which a dealer can find a wife for himself or for a son. The son may be disabled or he may be growing older and not had a wife. It is easy to present him with a pretty girl."

Payenda Gul holds the government responsible for the situation.

"They cannot do anything about the big drug dealers but they come and plough up the small farmers' poppies and this creates the problem," he said.

A 17-year-old girl from Jalalabad province, who refuses to disclose her name, said her father forced her into an engagement with a blind man.

She said her father had taken out a loan of 80,000 afghanis ($1,600 US), but his fields had been ploughed under and he had had no choice but to offer her in return for his debt.

"I will be serving my blind husband to the end of my life," she said. "I am an Afghan girl and have to respect my father's choice even though I disagree with it."

Moalem Lal Faqir, a poppy grower in the Khogyani district, also owes money but he refuses to give away his daughter.

"The government ploughed my fields and I lost everything," he said. "The man who loaned me the money is 50 years old and wants my 20-year-old daughter as his second wife. But I will not do this. I will sell the land that I inherited but I will never give him my daughter."

Syed Jafer Muram, deputy director of the Nangarhar narcotics-control authority, said that farmers have few legal options to resolve their debts with drug dealers.

"Cases like this don't come to the notice of officials," he said. "If a father tried to get help for his daughter he would be arrested for opium trading. Such issues are usually solved through a jirga."

Malik Sydullah Momand, a tribal elder of the Batikoat district, agreed that such disputes should be resolved by a local jirga, an Afghan tradition where village elders settle disputes between families.

"People respect jirga and accept its resolutions," he said. "It is a matter of shame if a man has to take his daughter's case to the courts. If daughters are being paid in return for opium debts it should be stopped. It is likely we will try to prohibit this practice. But it needs time. It can't happen overnight."

An official with the International Committee on Human Rights said the organization is aware of the situation but there is little that can be done unless official complaints are lodged.

"If such practices were brought to our attention we could act," said Sharifa Shahab. "But neither ICHR nor the police are informed. Unfortunately many of these women who are paid in return for opium debts either end up addicted to the drug or commit suicide. It's a very sad situation."

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