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An Afghan woman holds her children as she waits for a consultation outside a makeshift clinic at a sprawling settlement of mud brick huts housing those displaced by war and drought near Herat, Afghanistan, on Dec. 16.Mstyslav Chernov/The Associated Press

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.

Afghanistan’s aid-dependent economy was already teetering when the Taliban seized power in mid-August amid a chaotic withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops. The international community froze Afghanistan’s assets abroad and halted funding, unwilling to work with a Taliban government given its reputation for brutality during its previous rule 20 years ago.

The consequences have been devastating for a country battered by four decades of war, a punishing drought and the coronavirus pandemic. Legions of state employees, including doctors, haven’t been paid in months. Malnutrition and poverty stalk the most vulnerable, and aid groups say more than half the population faces acute food shortages.

“Day by day, the situation is deteriorating in this country, and especially children are suffering,” said Asuntha Charles, national director of the World Vision aid organization in Afghanistan, which runs a health clinic for displaced people near the western city of Herat. “Today I have been heartbroken to see that the families are willing to sell their children to feed other family members.”

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 Ms. 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.

When her husband told her he had sold Qandi, “my heart stopped beating. I wished I could have died at that time, but maybe God didn’t want me to die,” Gul said, with Qandi by her side peering shyly from beneath her sky-blue headscarf. “Each time I remember that night ... I die and come back to life.”

Her husband told her he sold one to save the others, saying they all would have died otherwise.

“Dying was much better than what you have done,” she said she told him.

Ms. Gul rallied her brother and village elders and with their help secured a “divorce” for Qandi, on condition she repays the 100,000 afghanis (aboutUS$1,000) her husband received. It’s money she doesn’t have.

Her husband fled, possibly fearing Ms. Gul might denounce him to authorities. The Taliban government recently banned forced marriages.

Ms. Gul says she isn’t sure how long she can fend off the family of the prospective groom, a man of around 21.

“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,” she 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.

In another part of the camp, father-of-four Hamid Abdullah was also selling his young daughters into arranged marriages, desperate for money to treat his chronically ill wife, pregnant with their fifth child.

He can’t repay money he borrowed to fund his wife’s treatments, he said. So three years ago, he received a down payment for his eldest daughter Hoshran, now 7, in an arranged marriage to a now-18-year-old.

The family who bought Hoshran are waiting until she is older before settling the full amount and taking her. But Abdullah needs money now, so he is trying to arrange a marriage for his second daughter, six-year-old Nazia, for about 20,000-30,000 afghanis (US$200-$300).

“We don’t have food to eat,” and he can’t pay his wife’s doctor, he said.

His wife, Bibi Jan, said they had no other option but it was a difficult decision. “When we made the decision, it was like someone had taken a body part from me.”

In neighbouring Badghis province, another displaced family is considering selling their son, eight-year-old Salahuddin.

His mother, Guldasta, said that after days with nothing to eat, she told her husband to take Salahuddin to the bazaar and sell him to bring food for the others.

“I don’t want to sell my son, but I have to,” the 35-year-old said. “No mother can do this to her child, but when you have no other choice, you have to make a decision against your will.”

Salahuddin blinked and looked on silently, his lip quivering slightly.

His father, Shakir, blind in one eye and with kidney problems, said the children had been crying for days from hunger. Twice he decided to take Salahuddin to the bazaar, and twice he faltered. “But now I think I have no other choice.”

Buying boys is believed to be less common than girls, and when it does take place, it appears to be cases families without sons buying infants. In her despair, Guldasta thought perhaps such a family might want an eight-year-old.

The desperation of millions is clear as more and more people face hunger, with some 3.2 million children under five facing acute malnutrition, according to the UN.

Ms. Charles, World Vision’s national director for Afghanistan, said humanitarian aid funds are desperately needed.

“I’m happy to see the pledges are made,” she said. But the pledges “shouldn’t stay as promises. They have to be seen as reality on the ground.”

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