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Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Painful Payment


Painful Payment for Afghan Debt: A Daughter, 6

Bryan Denton for The New York Times
A camp in Kabul. Taj Mohammad borrowed money to pay for hospital treatment for his wife and medical care for some of his children. Speaking of the likely fate of his daughter Naghma, top right, he said, “She does not know what is going to happen.” More Photos »
Editors' Note Appended
KABUL, Afghanistan — As the shadows lengthened around her family’s hut here in one of Kabul’s sprawling refugee camps, a slight 6-year-old girl ran in to where her father huddled with a group of elders near a rusty wood stove. Her father, Taj Mohammad, looked away, his face glum.
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Bryan Denton for The New York Times
If her father cannot repay $2,500, Naghma Mohammad, in red, with her schoolmates, will have to marry the lender’s son, 17. More Photos »

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“She does not know what is going to happen,” he said softly.
If, as seems likely, Mr. Mohammad cannot repay his debt to a fellow camp resident a year from now, his daughter Naghma, a smiling, slender child with a tiny gold stud in her nose, will be forced to leave her family’s home forever to be married to the lender’s 17-year-old son.
The arrangement effectively values her life at $2,500. That is the amount Mr. Mohammad borrowed over the course of a year to pay for hospital treatment for his wife and medical care for some of his nine children — including Janan, 3, who later froze to death in bitter winter weather because the family could not afford enough firewood to stay warm.
“They said, ‘Pay back our money,’ and I didn’t have any money, so I had to give my girl,” Mr. Mohammad said. “I was thankful to them at the time, so it was my decision, but the elders also demanded that I do this.”
The story of how Mr. Mohammad, a refugee from the fighting in Helmand Province who in better days made a living as a singer and a musician, came to trade his daughter is in part a saga of terrible choices faced by some of the poorest Afghan families. But it is also a story of the way the war has eroded the social bonds and community safety nets that underpinned hundreds of thousands of rural Afghans’ lives.
Women and girls have been among the chief victims — not least because the Afghan government makes little attempt in the camps to enforce laws protecting women and children, said advocates for the camp residents.
Aid groups have been able to provide a few programs for women and children in the ever-growing camps, including schooling that for many girls here is a first. But those programs are being cut as international aid has dwindled here ahead of the Western military withdrawal. And the Afghan government has not offered much support, in part because most officials hope the refugees will leave Kabul and return home.
Most of the refugees in this camp are from rural southern Afghanistan, and they remain bound by the tribal codes and elder councils, known as jirgas, that resolved disputes in their home villages.
Few, however, still have the support of a broader network of kinsmen to fall back on in hard times as they would have at home. Out of context, the already rigid Pashtun codes have become something even harsher.
“This kind of thing never happened at home in Helmand,” said Mr. Mohammad’s mother as she sat in the back of the smoky room. Watching her granddaughter, as she laughed and smiled with her teacher, Najibullah, who also acts as a camp social worker and was visiting the family, she added, “I never remember a girl being given away to pay for a loan.”
From the point of view of those who participated in the jirga, the resolution was a good one, said Tawous Khan, an elder who led it and is one of the two main camp representatives. “You see, Taj Mohammad had to give his daughter. There was no other way,” he said. “And, it solved the problem.”
Some Afghan women’s advocates who heard about the little girl’s plight from news media reports were outraged and said they had asked the Interior Ministry to intervene, since child marriage is a violation of Afghan law and it is also unlawful to sell a woman. But nothing happened, said Wazhma Frogh, the executive director of the Research Institute for Women, Peace and Security.
“There has to be some sort of intervention,” Ms. Frogh said, “otherwise others will think this behavior is all right and it will increase.”
The Camps
The dark, cramped room where Mr. Mohammad lives with his wife and his eight children is typical of the shelters in the Charahi Qambar camp, which houses 900 refugee families from war-torn areas, mostly in southern Afghanistan.
The camp is the largest in the capital area, but just one of 52 such “informal settlements” in the province, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Abjectly poor, the people in the camps came with little more than a handful of household belongings. Seeking safety and aid, they instead found themselves unwelcome in a city already overcrowded with returning refugees from Pakistan and Iran.
For years Charahi Qambar did not even have wells for water because the government was reluctant to let aid groups dig them, said Mohammad Yousef, an engineer and the director of Aschiana, an Afghan aid group that works in nine camps around the country as well as with street children.
Editors' Note: April 2, 2013
A front-page article on Monday described the painful decision of an Afghan man, Taj Mohammad, to give his 6-year-old daughter in marriage to pay off his debt to another man. After the article was published, Mr. Mohammad called The New York Times on Monday and said the debt had been paid nearly a month ago, by an anonymous donor. In an interview on Friday, when asked if there had been any developments in the case — which The Times first learned about several months ago — Mr. Mohammad did not mention the payment. Asked on Monday why he had not said anything about it, he gave no direct answer. An article updating the case can be found on Page A6.