Women pay a price in war on Afghan drug trade
Poppy debts paid with daughters


By Farah Stockman, Globe Staff | September 28, 2005

SHINWAR, Afghanistan -- In the thirsty hills of Nangarhar province, debt is a way of life. Every autumn, sharecroppers take loans from drug traffickers to plant their poppy crops. After every harvest, they repay them in poppies, which are eventually turned into heroin.

This year, a US-backed eradication effort has sharply cut Nangarhar's lucrative poppy cultivation, but the sharecroppers' debts remain. Now, some of the region's poorest farmers say they are being forced to repay traffickers with the only thing they have left: their daughters.

Giving a daughter to repay a debt is a rare but age-old practice among the rural tribesmen of Afghanistan. A payment of last resort, the daughter is almost always given as a bride to the money-lender or to his son, but is sometimes given as a servant, according to the International Organization for Migration.

There are no statistics about how many girls have fallen victim to this practice, but human rights groups and the International Organization for Migration have documented cases, and interviews with more than a dozen indebted farmers and tribal elders from four districts of Nangarhar described witnessing or participating in such transactions.

''Of course, it is a failure when people sell a woman," said Arbab Asif, a landowner who leases plots to 58 sharecropping families. ''But these people are very poor. They don't have any other alternative."

A report last month by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime estimated that the eradication program -- a combination of crop destruction and persuading farmers not to plant -- reduced Afghan poppy cultivation by 21 percent this year. In Nangarhar, the reduction was 96 percent.

The US and Afghan governments have billed the campaign, which began in November of 2004, as the most significant victory in the battle against narcotics in Afghanistan, the world's largest producer of opium poppies. But the dark side of that success has cast a shadow across the remote villages of this province, where sharecroppers are reeling under the crackdown.

Some Afghans refer to the practice as ''giving bad," a traditional method of conflict resolution in which a murderer, a thief, or a debtor is forced by tribal elders to give a daughter or sister as payment to the victim's family. Others describe the practice as a marriage transaction.

In a culture of arranged marriages, where a groom usually pays the father of a bride between $200 and $5,000 depending on her social status and skills, a man can cancel his debt by arranging for his daughter to marry the lender or the lender's relative.

The practice is secretive and full of shame. It can rarely be reversed, as the girls are married into a new household and divorce is unheard of here. Pashtun tribal laws prohibit community members from discussing the issue openly, so those involved would speak only on condition of anonymity. It was not possible to interview the victims, who live in households associated with traffickers.

A tribal elder from Chaparhar District described one case in which a poppy farmer could not pay off a loan of about $1,166 because his crops were eradicated. The farmer offered his 14-year-old daughter, but the trafficker refused because the girl was mute. So the farmer arranged her marriage to a 40-year-old neighbor, and paid off the trafficker with the money he received from the marriage, according to the elder.

''The problem is solved now," he said.

An elder from Khogiani District described another case in which a man who owed about $6,600 offered his two daughters, ages 6 and 10, as payment. The group of tribal elders refused that form of payment because the girls were too young, he said. The farmer fled with his family to Pakistan to avoid paying the debt in cash. A friend who had guaranteed the loan has since been arrested, the elder said. Tribal elders carry the authority of a court to intervene in family disputes.

One 25-year-old-man, a juice-seller in Jalalabad, the provincial capital, said he got married last year to a 14-year-old girl whose family could not pay off a poppy loan to his father. He said his father had waited two years for the loan to be repaid before requesting the debtor's daughter.

''After two years, my father went and asked him, 'Can you return my money to me? Otherwise, my son is an adult. Please give your daughter to him,' " the 25-year-old recalled, describing the transaction matter-of-factly. ''I am quite happy with my wife, but there is still tension between the families. They do not express their feelings, but they remain secret enemies."

He said he allows his wife to keep in touch with her family, but that it is common for husbands in the Pashtun tribal areas to bar their wives from contact with the world outside the home, including with their own parents.

The practice of giving away a daughter to pay a debt is expected to increase sharply following the campaign against poppies, especially if farmers feel they have no alternative but to continue to plant in areas that could be hit hard by the eradication programs, and thus risk not having enough income to repay loans they took out to finance their crops.

Lal Gul an indebted father of five whose crop was destroyed this year, recalled that the Taliban cracked down on poppy-growing one year when they were in power and ''we witnessed plenty of cases" of paying debts with daughters. ''This year, I'm sure the number of such cases will increase because there is no source of income to pay back the loans."

Last year, the International Organization for Migration's annual report described human trafficking in Afghanistan as a growing problem, and included special sections in the report on the practice of marriage to cover a debt and the exchange of women for the settlement of disputes.

USAID spent $18 million in 2005 on immediate alternative-livelihood projects in Nangarhar to give farmers another source of income. But those funds, for short-term manual labor projects, fell far short of providing sharecroppers with enough income to repay their debts.

Nearly all farmers interviewed said they planned to grow poppy again, since it is the only crop for which they can obtain credit, and the only one that can earn them enough to pay off past debts.

Traffickers often double or even triple the debt if they are not repaid within one year. Several farmers said that some traffickers have killed people or taken their houses when a debt remained outstanding for too long.

''You have three alternatives. You could pay him, you could give your daughter or sister, or you could run away," said the elder from Khogiani. ''The father always rejects and denies to give his daughter, but there are many obligations. That is why so many families escape to Pakistan."

In a region known as Shinwar, the birthplace of Afghanistan's opium industry, about an hour's drive east of Jalalabad, about 30 families out of a village of 200 had recently run away to Pakistan or Iran because they could not afford to pay poppy-related debts, said tribal elder Malik Afsar, 84. He said no farmer in his village had given away a daughter.

But hours later, a farmer from Afsar's area acknowledged that his sister-in-law, a child, had been given away for marriage two years ago to the family of a man who had lent her father money to plant poppies. He said the families would wait until she grew up to conduct the marriage.

Jandad Spin Ghar, regional manager of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, said the group has received numerous complaints involving debt collection, but only one that specifically referenced the sale of a woman because of a poppy debt. His team visited the area to investigate, but families there refused to divulge any information.

Ghar said his office has intervened to stop more than 20 cases of girls and women being ''given as bad" but most of those were as payment to victims families in cases of murder.

Abdul Hamad Razzaq, a Kabul-based human rights researcher who helped investigate 500 cases across Afghanistan of girls and women being given away to settle disputes, said only about 20 were to cover financial debts.

That research, done as part of a report by a new Afghan organization known as the Women and Children Legal Research Foundation, reported cases of women as old as 32 and girls as young as 3 being given to another family.

Hangama Anwari, a human rights activist working to persuade communities to stop the practice, said the victims often live out the rest of their lives in isolation and shame, treated as servants even if they are wives.

''It's a crime," said she said. ''It's against all civil laws, and it is against Islam. . . . But the people who are applying the laws don't care."

© Copyright 2005 Globe Newspaper Company.