Afghan families forced to sell their young daughters as child brides as Afghanistan's economy collapses

Parwana (in the garland on the right) being sold to her new husband, 55-year-old Qorban, by her father Abdul Malik (left).
Parwana (in the garland on the right) being sold to her new husband, 55-year-old Qorban, by her father Abdul Malik (left). Photo credit: CNN / Screengrab

Warning: This story may disturb some readers.

An Afghan father who was forced to sell his nine-year-old daughter to a 55-year-old man as a child bride has pleaded with the buyer not to beat the young child - the price Abdul Malik had to pay to feed the rest of his starving family.

Nine-year-old Parwana Malik has been sold to a stranger, a decision her destitute parents said they had to make in order to buy food for the rest of their family. 

Parwana's father, Abdul, and her mother gave CNN permission to speak to their children in a bid to raise awareness about the lengths families are forced to go to in order to survive in Afghanistan, a nation ravaged by its deepening humanitarian crisis.

Speaking to CNN, Parwana described her 55-year-old buyer, known only as Qorban, as an "old man" due to his white beard and eyebrows. She said she didn't want to leave her family or be denied her education, as she had dreams of becoming a teacher.

On October 24, the day Parwana was taken away by Qorban, her weeping father pleaded with her new 'husband' not to hurt his daughter. 

"This is your bride. Please take care of her. You are responsible [for her] now, please don't beat her," Abdul told Qorban through his tears, CNN reports

Parwana, who told CNN she fears her new 'husband' will beat her and force her to work, dug her heels into the ground as Qorban led her away from her family and into a car. 

Qorban told the outlet he would treat Parwana as his child, not a wife, saying he already has a spouse at home.

"[Parwana] was cheap, and her father was very poor and he needs money," he told CNN. "She will be working in my home. I won't beat her. I will treat her like a family member. I will be kind."

Abdul told the outlet he is "broken" with guilt by the decision, but says he had no other choice. He is just one of many fathers in Afghanistan who have been forced to sell their young daughters into marriage in a desperate bid for survival. 

Parwana's family have lived in an Afghan displacement camp in the Badghis province for four years, living off humanitarian aid and menial work earning a few dollars a day, CNN reports. But when the Taliban seized control in August, forcing former president Ashraf Ghani to flee the country, life has only become more difficult for Afghan families. With the country's economy on the brink of collapse and international aid diminishing, many families are unable to afford basic necessities. Abdul told CNN he sold Parwana's 12-year-old sister several months ago.

"We are eight family members," he told CNN. "I have to sell to keep other family members alive."

Abdul said all other options had been exhausted. He had attempted to search for work in the provincial capital, Qala-e-Naw, but his efforts were futile. His wife had resorted to begging, and they had borrowed money from relatives, he said.

Qorban purchased Parwana for 200,000 Afghanis - about NZ$3091 - in the form of cash, sheep and land. Abdul said it will only sustain his family for a few months before they will be forced to find another way of raising money.

"As I can see, we don't have a future... I will have to sell another daughter if my financial situation doesn't improve - probably the two-year-old," Abdul said.

CNN also spoke to two other families forced to make the same heartbreaking decision - one is selling their 10-year-old daughter to a 70-year-old man. Another is selling two of their daughters, aged four and nine.

Although marrying off children under 15 is illegal in Afghanistan, it has been commonly practiced for years - and stories of families being forced to sell their daughters as child brides have only increased since August amid rampant hunger and unemployment, particularly ahead of the brutal winter. A third of the population is surviving on less than US$2 per day.

According to a United Nations report released this week, more than half of Afghanistan's population is facing acute food insecurity, with more than 3 million children under the age of five facing acute malnutrition over the coming months. Nearly 677,000 people have been displaced this year in the war-torn nation.

Since the Taliban captured the capital of Kabul in August, the economy has been on the brink of crumbling. The value of its currency has collapsed, while the costs of basic goods have soared due to shortages. 

Many girls in Afghanistan are now being denied their education by the Taliban, with no date of a return to school in sight. Activists say that once a girl is sold as a child bride, she is extremely unlikely to continue her education, with many forced to have unconsensual sex with their buyers - nearly 10 percent of Afghan girls aged 15 to 19 give birth every year, according to the UN Population Fund.

Mohammad Naiem Nazem, a human rights activist in Badghis, told CNN the number of children being sold is increasing day by day.

"Lack of food, lack of work, the families feel they have to do this."

Heather Barr, associate director of the women's rights division at Human Rights Watch, called the sales "absolutely cataclysmic". 

"We don't have months or weeks to stem this emergency... we are in the emergency already."