As the people of the ancient western Afghan city of Herat settle in for a cold December evening, the residents of a relatively new tent settlement brace themselves for a harsh night nearby.
“We own nothing, except the two tents given to us by DRC (Danish Refugee Council). There’s no water, no clothes, the winter days are getting colder,” says Qamar Gul, a 35-year-old widow from Badghis province, from inside her small white tent located in the Shaidahi area on the outskirts of Herat city.
The tent is reached after navigating a sea of thousands of temporary houses and mud homes in the makeshift settlement that extends for over eight kilometres. It is estimated that 50,000 Afghans displaced internally by war and drought moved to Herat this year, joining 52,000 others already living in those camps.
Gul and her two children welcome us into the shelter they have called their home for the past year and a half. The family was forced to leave their village after the Taliban killed her husband, who served in the Afghan police, two years ago. However, having to leave her home was not the most difficult decision Gul had to make.
Faced with extreme poverty, lack of food, water, clothes and a prospect of another harsh winter led Gul to sell her youngest child, seven-year-old Mina to a rich man in their home province five months ago. Her name has been changed for security reasons.
“When I lost my husband, I didn’t have anything. We didn’t have land or a house, or food to eat. She didn’t even have socks to cover her feet. She would cry for food and I didn’t know what to do,” Gul says, responding fiercely to questions and defending her actions.
“We were not in a good situation.”
Mina sits next to her mother quietly, staring at her hands, refusing to make eye contact with anyone in the white fabric room. Tears well-up in her eyes as her mother, also in tears, narrates her story. Gul struck a deal with a distant relative to sell Mina for a sum of AFN 210,000 ($2,680), of which they received AFN 5,000 ($64) in advance with the full amount to be paid when she was sent to his house.
The deal was struck with the help of a relative from this man’s village in Badghis province. After receiving the surety amount, Mina’s uncle took her to that village where she stayed with the relative for a few days, ahead of the “engagement ceremony”. It was during this period that the mother had a change of heart about selling her and reached out local activists who helped to bring Mina back by crowd-sourcing the amount needed to buy her back from this man.
They eventually brought the girl back and put the rest of the money was put into an account in Mina’s mother’s name to be used for Mina’s education. However, there is no school for several kilometres. The only school in the camp is run by Unicef and located in a remote part of the camp, so she is not currently enrolled.
The buyer claimed to have brought Mina as a bride for his teenage son, but activists who helped to save her suspect that Mina could have been vulnerable to exploitation and abuse as well.
“Of course, it is an injustice to marry a seven years old girl but we didn’t have any other option. We would’ve died if we didn’t get that money,” she says.
Read the full story on The National