Under the Taliban, families in debt are selling off their children

AP Photo/Mohammad Asif Khan

It’s been a little while since we checked in on how things are going in Afghanistan under the kinder, gentler Taliban. While there is still a limited amount of mainstream media coverage coming out of the country and some reporters remain on the ground in the “safer” areas, much of the focus has shifted elsewhere. (This is to the great relief of the Biden administration, carried out by his willing stenographers in the press.) While I’d love to report that conditions are improving and human rights are slowly reemerging, sadly, pretty much the opposite seems to be the case. Winter is approaching quickly and food is so scarce that 95% of the citizens there are reportedly undernourished already. Another thing that is missing is money. That likely doesn’t apply to the Taliban leaders of course, but people aren’t getting paid over much of the country, and there is almost no cash to be found to pay those who still manage to find work. This has led some of the families who are in debt to consider an unthinkable proposition. They are selling off their children to their creditors to cover what they owe. (Wall Street Journal, subscription required)


Desperate to feed her family, Saleha, a housecleaner here in western Afghanistan, has incurred such an insurmountable debt that the only way she sees out is to hand over her 3-year-old daughter, Najiba, to the man who lent her the money. The debt is $550.

Saleha, a 40-year-old mother of six who goes by one name, earns 70 cents a day cleaning homes in a wealthier neighborhood of Herat. Her much older husband doesn’t have any work.

Such is the starkness of deepening poverty in Afghanistan, a humanitarian crisis that is worsening fast after the Taliban seized power on Aug. 15, prompting the U.S. to freeze $9 billion in Afghan central-bank assets and causing a halt in most foreign aid.

A reporter spoke to the lender to who Saleha owes the money. He admits that he made an offer a few weeks ago to cancel her debt if she hands over her daughter to be “married” to one of his sons when she reaches puberty. Until that time, the daughter will do domestic work around the house.

In the phone interview, the lender made no bones about the arrangement. “I also don’t have money. They haven’t paid me back,” said Mr. Khalid Ahmad, reached by phone in Badghis. “So there is no option but taking the daughter.”

Let that sink in for a moment. “So there is no option but taking the daughter.”

Something that struck me when I was reading this horrifying story was the realization that our failure in Afghanistan didn’t only come with the botched evacuation. (Though that was a massive failure also.) We were never going to “remake” the country into some democratic bastion of freedom because we never really changed the culture of that nation, aside from perhaps among some of the younger women in urban areas. After twenty years of western influence, it took a matter of weeks before the locals (and we’re not even talking about the Taliban here) were back to treating females as literal property. This lender clearly has no qualms about buying that toddler – another human being – and forcing her into a life of servitude until she becomes the closeted sex slave of one of his sons… when she reaches puberty. In other words, when she’s somewhere between eight and fourteen years old. And that assumes there are enough scraps of food in the home to keep her alive until then.


Food aid has been arriving in the country, by the way. Surely not enough for everyone, but the Red Cross and some UN agencies have been sending shipments daily. The problem is that the Taliban control the only airports and border crossings where it comes in. At that point, it is directed where they say it has to go, and that’s not to the minority regions and smaller provinces where there is less of a presence of Taliban fighters.

Even the international agencies who previously said that they would “judge the Taliban by their actions” when making decisions about sending aid have mostly admitted defeat. Famine is setting in and if they don’t send the food, the Taliban will just start letting people starve to death. Heather Barr, of the women’s rights division at Human Rights Watch, is quoted by the Wall Street Journal and she makes a good observation. She said, “The Taliban are holding Afghans hostage and playing chicken with the international community.”

That’s a sad statement. Even sadder is that it’s looking increasingly like the Taliban will get away with it and nobody will lift a finger.

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