Afghanistan parents face selling children to survive as nearly half the population faces acute hunger

Imagine as a parent having to sell one of your children to feed the others, or sell a kidney to pay for their health treatment.

These are the choices being made by desperate families in Afghanistan where 20 million people, nearly half the population, are facing acute hunger.

Conflict, drought and escalating global food and energy prices has the Taliban-controlled nation now on the brink of catastrophic famine, with winter just around the corner.

Herat, in West Afghanistan, was once an important link for commerce on the ancient Silk Road. Now the only thing being traded are stories of human misery.

If this is the place you flee to, you can only imagine how bad things were to bring them here. 

Hundreds of thousands displaced by continuous fighting and drought now live here, although 'live' is being overly generous. It is as bleak as it is vast.

Thirty-year-old Zargul has seven children. When her husband became sick six years ago they borrowed money to pay for his treatment. He's still unable to work and despite selling their home and land they've gone further into debt.

She said two days ago the person they owe money to told them he would buy their 10-year-old daughter and clear their loan, around $3000. She says they don't want to do that, but what choice do they have.

Aid workers say as awful as it sounds, it is now commonplace. 

And life for young boys is also cruel. Asuntha Charles, the national director of World Vision Afghanistan, said this week she met a 12-year-old boy forced into hard manual labour to support his extended family.

"He's actually earning less than $10 per week and with that income he has to manage 12 children so honestly, they are eating just a piece of bread and tea to manage their living expenses and many of them are skipping meals," Charles said.

At the moment Zargul makes around $1 a day spinning wool, just enough to buy flour to make bread. But with food and fuel prices having already escalated by 40 percent this year and winter on its way, the prospects for all in this camp are grim.

Farzarneh is 27. The youngest of her five children was born with a cleft palate and the family went into debt to pay for surgery. Her husband is in Iran working, but what little he earns goes into paying back their loan.

It's clear Farzarneh loves and cares for her daughter, she just can't afford to feed her. She said the only food her daughter can take is milk but she only has enough money to buy it once a week.

It's thought more than 20 million in Afghanistan are facing acute hunger, and more than half are children. The most vulnerable are sold into forced marriage and child labour, or worse.

"Children are just disappearing, children on the streets are just disappearing and we do not know what's happening to them so it's a really worrisome situation on the ground, especially for the children," Charles said.

Charles said what is desperately needed here is money, either from governments like New Zealand or private donations. Because as terrible as the situation seems now, the coming months could be catastrophic.