By Alam Bains:
Afghanistan is the World’s largest opium producer, accounting for nearly 75% of the world’s heroin supply. Opium cultivation accounts for about 20% of the country’s GDP, becoming one of the largest sources of economic activity along with foreign aid. According to United Nations Afghanistan Opium Survey, for the first time, nearly 200,000 hectares of Afghan fields are producing poppy, covering an area equivalent to Mauritius. Shafeeq Seddiq, President of Afghanistan Justice Organization, in an interview, said that “cultivating poppy is strictly an economic decision, since a kilogram of dry opium sells for about $160-$200, as compared to 40 cents for a kilogram of wheat. If the farmers are being offered no other financial alternatives, no services, no way out of poverty, they’re going to continue to go back to planting poppy every time.” Violence and political instability means there is unlikely to be any significant drop in poppy farming in the world’s top opium producer before foreign combat troops head home next year.
People are driven towards poppy cultivation, given the fact that it can be very lucrative. However, it is not without its fair share of risks. Initial costs are high given the cost of seeds and fertilizers. This leads to many farmers taking unsecured loans at high rates of interests from unscrupulous lenders, drug mafia and even the Taliban. The Afghan Government is running an eradication campaign wherein the farms of those found cultivating poppy are destroyed, leaving them with high debts and no way to settle it.
This is such a common scenario in Afghanistan, that it has given rise to a horrendous phenomenon where the daughters of the debtors are bartered in marriage to settle the debt. These women are then known as the “Opium Brides” or “Loan Brides”. These women are sometimes married to men twice their age, sold further or transported to foreign countries where they are used for drug transportation or as sex slaves and even child prostitutes. In his Award Winning Documentary, “Opium Brides”, Investigative Afghan reporter Najibullah Quraishi, also shows the risk faced by the families of the potential trafficked brides. A man who was unwilling to give up his daughter was beheaded on camera with a knife.
In a report published by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), it was shown that the concept of debt marriage is deeply rooted in the Afghan tradition. The practice of using women or girls for settling debts or disputes was extremely common. Women are used as commodities for many failings, in the past it was for disputes and in the present times, it is for debts.
The problem of Opium Brides again brings to light the issue of human trafficking and devaluation of women’s lives. Neither is there any statistics recorded regarding opium brides there nor are there any organizations dedicated solely for the cause of these women. There is no question of legal aid for the victims as most of these cases are in the dangerous and isolated areas. In Opium Brides, Quraishi visits one of only a few shelters in Afghanistan that care for runaway victims of loan marriages. These shelters are under constant threat of attack by drug traffickers.
With increasing poverty, political instability and decline in foreign aid, poppy cultivation is on the rise. The government’s eradication program is proving to be a bane for the women, who then bear the brunt of the debt raised by the men. The government needs to find a middle path between slowing down poppy cultivation and increasing economic activity. It needs to address the issue of women who are treated as commodities, given the nonexistence of legal rights and aid for them, and also the lack of options with the men in order to sustain themselves.