The Trafficked Children of Afghanistan
Most Afghan trafficking victims are children forced to work in carpet making, brick kilns, domestic servitude, sex trafficking, domestic work, herding livestock, begging, poppy cultivation and harvesting, salt mining, drug smuggling, weapons trafficking, and truck driving.
High levels of debt have also driven some families to sell their children to work as indentured servants or marry off underaged daughters in exchange for a dowry payment; some families force their children into labor with physical violence or knowingly sell their children into sex trafficking.
The United Nations Children’s Protection Organization (UNICEF) registered 183 child marriages and 10 cases of selling of children over 2018 and 2019 in Herat and Baghdis provinces alone. The children were between 6 months and 17 years of age.
UNICEF estimates that 28 per cent of Afghan women aged 15–49 years were married before the age of 18.
An Afghan young girl story
In a sprawling settlement of mud brick huts in western Afghanistan housing people displaced by drought and war, a woman is fighting to save her daughter.
Aziz Gul’s husband sold the 10-year-old girl into marriage without telling his wife, taking a down-payment so he could feed his family of five children. Without that money, he told her, they would all starve. He had to sacrifice one to save the rest.
Many of Afghanistan’s growing number of destitute people are making desperate decisions such as these as their nation spirals into a vortex of poverty.
Arranging marriages for very young girls is a frequent practice throughout the region. The groom’s family — often distant relatives — pays money to seal the deal, and the child usually stays with her own parents until she is at least around 15 or 16. Yet with many unable to afford even basic food, some say they’d allow prospective grooms to take very young girls or are even trying to sell their sons.
But Gul, unusually in this deeply patriarchal, male-dominated society, is resisting. Married off herself at 15, she says she would kill herself if her daughter, Qandi Gul, is forcibly taken away.
Gul remembers well the moment she found out her husband had sold Qandi. For around two months, the family had been able to eat. Eventually, she asked her husband where the money came from, and he told her.
“My heart stopped beating. I wished I could have died at that time, but maybe God didn’t want me to die,” Gul said. Qandi sat close to her mother, her hazel eyes peering shyly from beneath her sky-blue headscarf. “Each time I remember that night … I die and come back to life. It was so difficult.”
She asked her husband why he did it.
“He said he wanted to sell one and save the others. ‘You all would have died this way,’ (he said.) I told him, ‘Dying was much better than what you have done.’”
Gul rallied her community, telling her brother and village elders that her husband had sold her child behind her back. They supported her, and with their help she secured a “divorce” for her child, but only on condition she repays the 100,000 afghanis (about $1,000) that her husband received.
It’s money she doesn’t have. Her husband fled, possibly fearing Gul might denounce him to the authorities. The Taliban government recently announced a ban on forcing women into marriage or using women and girls as exchange tokens to settle disputes.
The family of the prospective groom, a man of around 21 or 22, has already tried several times to claim the girl, she says. She is not sure how long she can fend them off.
“I am just so desperate. If I can’t provide money to pay these people and can’t keep my daughter by my side, I have said that I will kill myself,” Gul said. “But then I think about the other children. What will happen to them? Who will feed them?” Her eldest is 12, her youngest — her sixth — just two months.
Now alone, Gul leaves the children with her elderly mother while she goes to work in people’s homes. Her 12-year-old son works picking saffron after school. It’s barely enough to keep them fed, and the saffron season is short, only a few weeks in the fall.
Afghanistan is experiencing a very difficult humanitarian crisis:
Millions of people in Afghanistan are experiencing misery and hunger amid decades of conflict, the collapse of the country’s economy, years of drought, and freezing wintertime temperatures.
Afghanistan, which has endured repeated humanitarian crises, faces its darkest time.
Half of Afghanistan’s population experiences acute hunger. Some 3.5 million people are displaced due to conflict, and many children are out of school. The health care system is collapsing, fundamental rights of women and girls are under threat, farmers and herders are struggling amidst the climate crisis, and the economy is in free fall.
Conflict has subsided, but violence, fear, and deprivation continue to send Afghans across borders, particularly in Iran and Pakistan. There are 24 million people inside Afghanistan and 5.7 million Afghans and host communities in five neighbouring countries who need support.
More than 800,000 Afghans were newly displaced inside the country in 2021, 80 per cent of whom are women and children. This comes on top of recurrent natural disasters including drought and earthquake damage and the COVID-19 pandemic with its far-reaching health impacts and socio-economic repercussions.
Afghans already constitute one of the largest refugee populations worldwide. Some three-quarters of Afghan refugees are hosted in Iran and Pakistan, with more than 2.2 million registered refugees in the two countries.
Afghanistan’s children are growing up amid this crisis. Some 65 per cent of the Afghan people are children and youth, anxious about their future in the face of insecurity and economic challenges.