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Afghan Women and Girls Traded for Opium Debts

By Carolyn E. Price     Feb 6, 2007 in World
Men unable to pay their opium debts, trade in their "extra burden" daughters.
On November 4, 2006, a member of the local women's council, Nasima (who was 25-years-old at the time) grabbed an AK-47 from a policeman who was guarding the council meeting and killed herself. This happened in the Grishk district of southern Helmand province in Afghanistan.
Nasima was driven to this ghastly end because of the daily beatings she received at the hands of her husband. Like many other women in Helmand, in 2005 she had been given away by her family. Her father owed money to an opium dealer and he was unable to pay back the money or to provide the quantity of opium that he had promised to the smuggler. In exchange, he offered his daughter to the him. The smuggler already had a wife and four children, however, under Islamic law and in many Muslim countries a man is allowed up to four wives.
"Nasima was enduring a bitter life in the family. The family members and her husband considered her as an extra burden," Gulalai, head of the local women’s council in Grishk district.
Nasima's case is just one of hundreds where women are traded for debts owed. Most of these go unreported in the troubled southern provinces, where most of the opium in Afghanistan is produced. The practice is also done in other provinces, particularly the east and the north, but the stakes are the highest in the south because it is the heartland for drug trading.
In another case in the Marja district, 18-year-old Saliha considers herself to be one of the lucky ones because she is living a relatively peaceful life. "I was 13 when my father married me off to a 20-year-old man, whose father had given a loan to my parents and they were unable to return the amount or the quantity of opium," Saliha said.
She says she is fortunate to be the first and only wife for her husband, who is only seven years older and not twice her age, as is the most common case.
Qais Bawari, acting head of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) for the southern region, based in Kandahar, said they have had 69 cases of self-immolation or murders reported to them from Helmand and Kandahar provinces in 2006 alone. Several were related to marriages in exchange for drugs. "Unfortunately many of the cases of violence against women go unreported and a very small proportion is reported to us," Bawari said. He said people were reluctant to report cases regarding domestic violence against women for fear of reprisals.
Afghanistan produces more than 90 percent of the opium available in the world today. Human rights activists say local drug dealers pay farmers in advance for their poppy crops but the farmers more often than not end up having to give their daughters to the drug traffickers when they fail to harvest the expected yield.
The sale of opium is banned in Afghanistan. However, since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, it has re-emerged as a profitable trade. Despite the central government's efforts and increased pressure from the international community, poppy farmers are reluctant to give up their crop for what many see as a less lucrative alternative in a country where poverty is at epidemic proportions.
Some say that the status of women has not changed that much since the ousting of the Taliban, who enforced very strict rules on the movement of women and curtailed their rights. The head of the women's affairs department in Helmand, Fawzia Ulomi, said more than 20 women and girls had committed suicide over the past 10 months - most of whom had been handed over to drug dealers instead of the drugs, or to settle family disputes.
Afghanistan and its female population are at the bottom of the global poverty scale. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) reported in August 2006 that Afghanistan has the fourth lowest living standards in the world and is tje third lowest in gender disparities.
Ahmad Shah Mirdad, legal analyst with AIHRC in Kabul, has criticised the central government for doing little to stop the growing problems faced by women in the country. "Stronger efforts are needed to battle these awful and discriminatory practices in our communities," Mirdad said.
More about Afghanistan, Traded, Opium