Through child marriage or paid adoption, Afghan girls are bearing the brunt of the Taliban economic crisis

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HERAT, Afghanistan — Without a job, Khangul Sadiqi was heavily in debt. His children often went to bed hungry and shivering in their unheated house. And so, six months after Taliban rule, he began to see his three girls through the prism of survival.

“Rather than dying all my family members, I decided it was better to sell one of my girls to save the rest,” Sadiqi said.

The daughter he sold is Zahra. She is 3 years old. Her buyer is a wealthy man looking for another woman. he is 50

The selling price: around 500 dollars.

As Afghanistan is gripped by a deepening humanitarian crisis, fueled by a confluence of economic, financial and political shocks, exacerbated by the government collapse in August, children like Zahra are increasingly bearing the brunt of mounting poverty. Though no comprehensive data is available, the United Nations, aid agencies and local officials say they are receiving credible reports of a rise in child marriage and the sale of babies for adoption as Afghans seek ways to come to terms with their spiraling lives.

“It’s happening everywhere and in different socioeconomic sectors,” said Cornelius Williams, director of child protection at the United Nations Children’s Fund. “What we are seeing is a commodification of girl and child marriages becoming more and more transactional. Children in general are becoming an asset in the household.”

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Child marriage has long been widespread in many Afghan communities. But the Taliban takeover, the subsequent collapse in the economy and banking system, and other stresses have “exacerbated the problem,” Williams said. The age of girls sold into marriage is falling, a trend that could continue as long as the Taliban keep girls out of secondary education in most areas.

The change that has brought education and opportunities to countless Afghan women and girls after two decades of Western presence raises questions about their identity and future.

“The evidence shows that the more girls survive and graduate from school, the less chance they have of marrying early,” Williams said. “Families believed that their girls should have a job. The value they held in their girls was not as nubile goods, but as professionals. That rolls it back. It’s important that we get these girls back to school.”

There are also cultural signs of dissolution. Traditionally, when a child is married, it remains with its family until its infancy. Today, UNICEF and other aid agencies on the ground are investigating reports that girls are moving into their husbands’ homes much earlier.

Zahra’s buyer agreed that she could stay with her parents until she was 15, Sadiqi said. At that time he was planning to marry her. Then he would be 62 years old.

But when the buyer arrived last month with a $100 deposit, he changed the agreement, Sadiqi said: he wanted to take the child across the border to Iran immediately. When Sadiqi, 35, asked how he would explain his wife Zahra’s absence, the buyer replied:

“If any of your relatives ask, tell them you lost them on the street and couldn’t find them,” Sadiqi recalled.

Desperate, Sadiqi nodded in agreement.

But unbeknownst to him, his four other small children were nearby. And they listened.

“If you give us one of your children, I’ll give you the money”

Family life had always been a struggle. For years, Sadiqi pushed a wheelbarrow and carted vegetables and other goods from one place to another. He was making about $2 a day. His wife Parigul earned the same amount by washing other people’s clothes. When business was bad, they had to rely on local and western aid organizations.

“It was fine for us,” said Parigul, 26. “We were able to support our family.”

But last spring, her life took a turn for the worse. Sadiqi was plagued by excruciating back pain that forced him to stop working, he said. A doctor recommended an operation that he could not afford. When the Taliban swept through Afghanistan in August, he traveled to Iran to find a less strenuous job and send money to his family. But the Iranian police deported him, he said.

When he returned to Herat, the Taliban were in control of the country. And by then, Parigul had lost her income too: all her clients were gone.

“A lot of people left because of the Taliban,” she said. “Those who had money fled to Iran or another country.”

The group’s return to power triggered a domino effect of suffering. First came sanctions, freezes on central bank reserves and lending, and suspension of foreign aid, which once accounted for 70 percent of government spending. A banking crisis and a liquidity crisis followed, shutting down businesses and investments and soaring unemployment.

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Prices are rising and millions are struggling to buy food and pay rent. Clinics have been closed as health workers have not received their salaries. Adding to the turmoil is one of the worst droughts in a quarter century. As the economy collapses, 24.4 million Afghans — 55 percent of the population — are in need of humanitarian assistance, a 30 percent increase from a year earlier, according to the United Nations.

The number of children killed is particularly devastating. The health system has collapsed and the United Nations estimates that 1.1 million children under the age of 5 could be severely malnourished this year without proper treatment. According to a UN report, up to 131,000 children could die of hunger if nothing is done.

In a recent survey of 1,400 Afghan households, the charity Save the Children reported that a third of families had lost all of their household income since the Taliban took power. Almost a fifth of families have been forced to send children to work and more than a million are believed to have entered the workforce. The data also showed a large increase in families going into debt to buy groceries, the charity said.

Mazullah Rahimi couldn’t wait for his child to grow up and work.

The 31-year-old former government soldier was unemployed, had two wives and eight children, including Bibi Asma, their one-year-old daughter. He owed nearly $1,600 to various people. The electricity went out and food was scarce.

He called a wealthy man named Saifoor, whom he had known for years, and asked him for a loan.

“He told me we didn’t have any children,” Rahimi recalled. “If you give us one of your children, I’ll give you the money.”

Rahimi sold Asma for around $800. Although no data is available on such “adoptions,” community leaders said they are seeing increasing cases of childless couples using funds to buy babies from distressed parents.

Rahimi’s wife Tajber, whose eyes filled with tears, recalled explaining her departure to Asma’s siblings, who could not understand why she was walking in a taxi with a strange man. “I told them they took your sister away and she won’t be with you anymore,” she said. “You have to live with that.”

A baby-size yellow dress with white ruffles hangs in her room, a reminder of the child she lost.

Days later, Saifoor admitted buying Asma in a phone interview. He spoke on condition that only his first name be mentioned.

“My wife and I love Asma very much,” he said. “Initially we considered changing her name, but at my wife’s request we still call her Asma.”

In October, Sadiqi’s family was in dire straits. He was unemployed and his back pain had increased. Parigul asked neighbors if she could wash her clothes for dinner. But they too faced economic difficulties.

“I prayed to God, ‘Please kill me,'” Sadiqi said. “Death is better than this life because my children have nothing to eat.”

He spoke in their unheated home in a poor enclave of this western city. Zahra was playing with a plastic bracelet, trying to get her siblings’ attention. They all solemnly listened to their father’s speech.

In November, the buyer entered her life. He was an acquaintance from her village in Badghis Province, about 100 miles north of here. A former government employee, he visited their homes three times, each time leaving about $10 to help them buy groceries and offering them more assistance if needed.

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Sadiqi asked him for a loan in December. That’s when the man’s intentions became clear: he offered to buy one of Sadiqi’s three daughters.

It took Sadiqi two hours to make his decision.

“When he told me at the time, I was shocked,” Sadiqi said. “But then I started looking at my situation.”

He offered one of his two older girls – 7-year-old Nozdana or 10-year-old Shaida. But the buyer had targeted Zahra.

“He said, ‘I want the youngest because she doesn’t know anything,'” Sadiqi recalled.

In January, the buyer came back with the $100 down payment — and a demand that Zahra be shipped to Iran over the next three months.

When he took the money, Sadiqi didn’t see that Zahra’s four siblings were playing a few meters away. They heard the whole conversation and ran inside to tell their mother. Parigul walked out, shaken.

“She was crying,” Sadiqi said when his wife nodded. She told the buyer to leave.

When she came back inside, the buyer took Sadiqi aside and told him to pocket the $100. He would send the remaining $400 after his return from Iran. (The Washington Post could not reach the buyer in Iran.)

“He said, ‘Just keep your daughter for a while,'” Sadiqi said. “I’ll be back for her.”

With the $100, Sadiqi bought flour, rice, oil and other necessities. It was also an attempt to convince his wife that selling Zahra would benefit the family. But Parigul refused to give up on Zahra. She told Sadiqi’s mother, Zibida, about the sale.

“I urged my son not to sell my granddaughter,” said Zibida, 60. “I will never forgive you, I said.”

But Sadiqi continued to pressure his wife to agree to the sale, emphasizing her poverty. At the time, her 12-year-old son, Ismael, was on the street looking for plastic to heat her house.

Eventually she issued an ultimatum, she recalled.

“If you sell them, I’ll kill myself,” Parigul swore.

Your words finally got through.

Sadiqi called the buyer. “I want to cancel our deal,” Sadiqi recalled after telling him. “A suicide could happen in my house.”

The buyer reminded him that he had already paid the deposit.

“I can’t sell you my daughter,” Sadiqi recalled as he told the buyer he would find a way to pay him back the $100. “I regret what I did.”

But he didn’t accept the offer, Sadiqi said. “He still thinks he owns my daughter.”