Afghanistan’s Opium Brides: Who Is Working on the Issue?

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“At its core, the problem is one of human trafficking, and of the utter devaluing of women’s and girls’ lives. Strip away the euphemisms and exoticism and you’re dealing with slavery.”

In Opium Brides, FRONTLINE correspondent Najibullah Quraishi goes deep inside the Afghan countryside to to reveal how local farm families are forced to give up their daughters, and sometimes their sons, to drug smugglers in order to repay debts after the Afghan government destroys their opium crops.

But the practice of trading girls for debt is hardly new, and goes far beyond debts incurred from opium eradication policies. And efforts to address the issue are constrained by many factors.

The Scope of the Problem

Unfortunately, there are no statistics about how many girls have been traded for debt incurred from opium eradication policies in Afghanistan, but journalists and NGOs like the International Organization for Migration (IOM) have documented instances of such transactions taking place across the country.

In its 2008 trafficking report on Afghanistan (PDF), the IOM noted how deeply the practice of trading young women for debt is rooted in society:

Traditionally, the Afghan society is patriarchal in its nature, and women often are considered the “property” of men; they are father’s child when born, brother’s sister when grown up, husband’s wife when married and son’s mother when old. … Monetary transactions or agreements on debt relief are often made in trading Afghan women as if they were commodities. … The practice of using women and girls for dispute settlements has been a part of the Afghan society for centuries. … No decision is made with the consent of the girl and she is incarcerated for the crime that a man in her family has committed and treated as a slave for the rest of her life.

Vanda Felbab-Brown, a drug interdiction expert at the Brookings Institution, says the practice varies with the level of indebtedness. “Women are traded as compensation for many failings, be it family disputes or the inability to pay back to money lenders,” she said. “It’s not solely linked to the issue of poppy.”

“At its core, the problem of ‘opium brides’ and other ‘loan brides’ is one of human trafficking, and of the utter devaluing of women’s and girls’ lives,” says Una Moore, a Kabul-based development consultant who frequently works in Nangarhar Province, where opium eradication policies have been enforced. “Strip away the euphemisms and exoticism [of the terms] and you’re dealing with slavery.”

Efforts to Address the Issue

While it is difficult to find organizations that document the issue of opium brides, finding actors who are working to curb the problem is even harder.

“Because many of these cases occur in the most dangerous and insular areas of the country, options for intervening on behalf of victims are virtually nonexistent,” says Moore. “That is a gruesome reality.”

Though Quraishi makes it to one of the handful of shelters in Afghanistan that takes care of women and girls who have escaped such marriages, these homes are under constant threat. [For security reasons, FRONTLINE cannot reveal the name or location of the shelter Quraishi visited.] Last year, after a campaign by a conservative television host suggesting that the shelters actually serve as hubs for prostitution, Afghanistan’s Council of Ministers tried to push for them to be brought under the control of the government.

Some experts say addressing the problem in a more integrated and wide-reaching way requires first and foremost an Afghan government that can enforce the rule of law beyond urban centers.

“A well-trained and courageous team of social workers needs to be mentored to maturity, protected by honest police and backed up by a judicial system that adheres to international human right law,” says Moore, adding, “Victims must be offered safe haven in shelters that are not under constant threat from the most conservative and misogynist elements within the government. Afghanistan today is a far cry from any of that.”

Organizations on the Ground

Though organizations that specifically focus on the problem of “loan brides” are rare, here are some of the NGOs and groups that broadly seek to address trafficking, challenges for women and girls, and drug interdiction in Afghanistan.

The Afghan Women’s Mission

The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission

Humanitarian Assistance for the Women and Children of Afghanistan

The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan

The United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) Afghanistan

The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Afghanistan

Voice of Women Organization

Dig Deeper:

The Opium Brides of Afghanistan — Sami Yousafzai, Newsweek

The Politics of Afghan Women’s Rights — Naheed Mustafa, Foreign Policy

War and Drugs in Afghanistan — Vanda Felbab-Brown, World Politics Review

What You Should Know about Women’s Rights in Afghanistan — Anand Gopal, The Huffington Post

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