Opium Brides: slavery for Afghan women

Struggling Afghan farmers may have to pay a lot more than interest to loan sharks in their war-torn country. Some gangsters have demanded the sale of daughters as a means of recovering their debts, with the threat of death hanging over the entire family as an alternative. As Newsweek notes, even flight has its limitations:

The family’s heartbreak began when Shah borrowed $2,000 from a local trafficker, promising to repay the loan with 24 kilos of opium at harvest time. Late last spring, just before harvest, a government crop-eradication team appeared at the family’s little plot of land in Laghman province and destroyed Shah’s entire two and a half acres of poppies. Unable to meet his debt, Shah fled with his family to Jalalabad, the capital of neighboring Nangarhar province. The trafficker found them anyway and demanded his opium. So Shah took his case before a tribal council in Laghman and begged for leniency. Instead, the elders unanimously ruled that Shah would have to reimburse the trafficker by giving Khalida to him in marriage. Now the family can only wait for the 45-year-old drugrunner to come back for his prize. Khalida wanted to be a teacher someday, but that has become impossible. “It’s my fate,” the child says.

Afghans disparagingly call them “loan brides”—daughters given in marriage by fathers who have no other way out of debt. The practice began with the dowry a bridegroom’s family traditionally pays to the bride’s father in tribal Pashtun society. These days the amount ranges from $3,000 or so in poorer places like Laghman and Nangarhar to $8,000 or more in Helmand, Afghanistan’s No. 1 opium-growing province. For a desperate farmer, that bride price can be salvation—but at a cruel cost. Among the Pashtun, debt marriage puts a lasting stain on the honor of the bride and her family. It brings shame on the country, too. President Hamid Karzai recently told the nation: “I call on the people [not to] give their daughters for money; they shouldn’t give them to old men, and they shouldn’t give them in forced marriages.”

The poppy-eradication effort in Afghanistan will upset a very delicate economic situation, and it has to do with the complete lack of infrastructure in the war-torn country. American agriculture excels because of the many systems we have built to support it — storage, transportation, compensation, and so on. We can have produce to market in hours, and we can rotate crops and grow crops that quickly perish because we have storage systems that keep it all fresh for sale.

Afghanistan has none of that. They don’t have any significant refrigeration systems, and most farmers are too poor to own their own. Roads and trucks are uncommon. Even if the farmers grew vegetables in place of poppies, they couldn’t reliably get it to market in any condition for sale — and in the winter, they could not store any excess. They would starve before the next planting season.

Poppies, on the other hand, allow farmers to almost grow cash. The opium doesn’t spoil, and a good harvest acts just like cash in the bank. Farmers squirrel it away and just bring kilos to market for quick returns when needed. Opium makes the most economic sense while Afghanistan remains infrastructurally backward.

Unfortunately, the eradication policies and war have created debt issues for farmers. They have sold their future crops at discounts to lenders who claim not to charge interest, as Islam requires, but who in reality have created vigorish akin to something at which a Mafia shylock might blush. When the crops fail, they get their pound of flesh — or more literally, about 100 pounds of it.

This is nothing less than slavery. Families have bartered for dowries in many cultures, including those in the West, but this goes beyond that. If we want the people of Afghanistan to find stability and prosperity without opium, we have to begin by halting the slave trade and addressing the infrastructure issues of that nation.