SHAIDAI, Afghanistan — Bashful, with long locks of rust-colored hair dyed with henna, Benazir fidgets with a handful of gravel when the topic of her marriage comes up.
She looks down at the ground and buries her head in her knees when asked if she knows she’s been promised to another family to marry one of their sons.
Her father says he will receive the equivalent of $2,000 for Benazir, but he hasn’t explained the details to her or what’s expected of her. She’s too young to understand, he says.
Benazir is 8 years old.
It is traditional for families here to pay a dowry to a bride’s family for a marriage, but it is extreme to arrange a marriage for a child so young. And the economic collapse following the Taliban’s takeover in August has forced already poor families to make desperate choices.
The days are filled with hardships for children here in Shaidai, a desert community on the mountainous edge of Herat in western Afghanistan.
Children like Benazir and her siblings beg on the streets, or collect garbage to heat their simple mud homes, because they don’t have enough money for wood.
Her father, Murad Khan, looks much older than his 55 years — his face worn with worry. A day laborer who hasn’t found work in months and with eight children to feed, his decision to sell Benazir to marriage at such a young age comes down to a cold calculation.
“We are 10 people in the family. I’m trying to keep 10 alive by sacrificing one,” he said in Pashto.
Khan said the arrangement is for Benazir to be married to a boy from a family in Iran when she reaches puberty. He hasn’t received the money yet for her dowry, and said as soon as he does, Benazir will be taken away by the man who bought her.
“I’ve been telling the shopkeepers I’ve sold my daughter and I will be paying them back, so they have given me some food as a loan.”
“He will just take her hand and take her away from me,” he said. “He will take her away and say, ‘She’s ours now.’”
A combination of a severe drought that decreased livestock and farmers’ yields, and the freezing of foreign aid by governments that don’t recognize the new Taliban government, have pushed poor Afghans over the edge.
Promising their daughters early for marriage, in exchange for cash, is seen as a lifeline for families that barely have a scrap of bread to eat.
The United Nations Population Fund has warned that it was “deeply concerned” by reports that child marriage is on the rise in Afghanistan.
“We have received credible reports of families offering daughters as young as 20 days old up for future marriage in return for a dowry,” UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore said in a statement.
‘A piece of your heart’
Benazir’s best friend Saliha is just 7 and has been sold for marriage for the same price, $2,000, to someone in the family of her father’s in-laws in Faryab province in the north.
Benazir and Saliha already have responsibilities in the community. They go together to a local mosque to collect water, a scarcity in the desert, and haul the hefty jugs together back to their homes.
Like her older neighbors, Saliha also spins yarn — pulling at a matted cloud of wool brought by traders and twisting it into neat spools of string. It takes four days to refine eight pounds of the material, which earns her a dollar.
But the family is in debt. Saliha’s father, Muhammed Khan, says he took out loans from store owners in town.
“I’ve been telling the shopkeepers I’ve sold my daughter and I will be paying them back, so they have given me some food as a loan,” he said.
The money he makes from selling Saliha will help pay that all back and feed her four siblings.
It was a soul-wrenching decision, he says.
“Your children are a piece of your heart. If I wasn’t forced to do this, why would I do it?” he says.
Afghanistan was a poor country before the Taliban’s takeover, propped up by foreign aid. According to the World Bank, about 75 percent of public finances were supplied by grants from the United States and other countries
When the U.S. military withdrew, and the hard-line Islamist Taliban government took over, a lot of that aid money was frozen. Salaries dried up and the flow of cash came to an abrupt halt, creating a humanitarian crisis.
And this looks set to get worse as the crisis spirals, with more than half of the population of Afghanistan now facing hunger and 3.2 million children suffering from malnutrition, according to the United Nations World Food Program.
The agency said it has never seen this many people facing emergency levels of food insecurity in Afghanistan, with all 34 provinces impacted.
In the relatively wealthy province of Herat in western Afghanistan, an emergency feeding center is running out of beds.
The Doctors Without Borders-run facility at the Herat Regional Hospital treats the most severely malnourished babies, like tiny Farzana, who at 8 months old weighs just 6 ½ pounds. She is one of 75 babies being cared for here.
Her father is a butcher, but his business has collapsed so badly, he couldn’t keep affording to feed his family.
Farzana lies without making a sound, a tiny, pale bone-thin arm sticking out and her wide eyes don’t blink.
“What we are seeing is very small kids, which are not well breastfed by the mothers because the mothers are all so malnourished, they can’t produce enough breast milk to feed them,” said Gaia Giletta, the head nurse for pediatrics with Doctors Without Borders at the feeding center.
Because of disruptions to health care and aid agencies across the region, Giletta said, many kids are receiving no primary care. For many who arrive, it is already too late, with one child dying nearly every day here.
Another baby at the center, Ali, is small and pale, barely mustering up energy to cry. His mother, Smita Umar, was herself malnourished, so Ali was born too weak to suckle. At 4 months old, he’s already spent a total of three months at the center.
“My husband is a house painter,” Umar said. “But he sold his tools so we could feed the baby. Things have got worse since the Taliban came. What little we had went to zero.”
Richard Engel, Gabe Joselow and Ahmed Mengli reported from Herat. Yuliya Talmazan from London.