Afghanistan produces most of the world’s opium, thus forming the backbone of the heroin manufacturing industry and bringing in millions of dollars to the country’s economy. According to a 2007 statistic, 92% of world’s opium is produced in Afghanistan, with an export value of 4 billion US Dollars.
Although the Afghan government has taken the recent initiative to eradicate this illegal business, its actions have created a negative impact on the farmers’ families. Likewise, troubles have also arisen due to Afghanistan’s well-known radical group, Taliban’s involvement in the opium farming business – collecting profits from the business to finance drug smugglers who in turn finance the farmers for opium cultivation.
It is important firstly to understand that in Eastern Afghanistan many farmers feel that they can alleviate poverty only through growing opium and selling to the smugglers. Yet the opium they grow in the poppy fields supports a black market for heroin trade which is sold across many countries.
In a further set of complications, the government’s crackdown on opium farming has posed another problem, destroying poppy fields in the hope that farmers will cultivate alternative crops like maize and wheat. As most farmers have borrowed money from the traffickers to grow opium, they sometimes become unable to repay loans to the traffickers when the government destroys the crops before harvest. Consequently, the illegal traffickers’ place severe demands on the farmers, accompanied with the threat of retribution. Often, indebted farmers are made to handover their younger daughters as payment, and the young girls are then driven into sex-slavery.
These heroin smugglers are supported, financed and protected by the Taliban. The Afghan reporter Najibullah Quraishi has reported the dark side of opium growing, uncovering the price paid by farmer families. For example, some girls are stolen if the farmer families cannot afford to pay their debt or they themselves are forced to give away their daughters to the drug smugglers. These girls of nine to twelve years old are then engaged in manufacturing heroin or taken as a bride for some traffickers. In addition, they are sold to other countries like Iran and beaten or tortured if they don’t agree to do whatever they are told.
It was reported in 2012 in various media channels that hundreds of farmer families in Afghanistan are facing these horrible situations and losing their girls as they are taken away from their parents in lieu of debt. Based on Fariba Nawa’s report, an Afghan-American journalist, there have been several such cases where girls not even reaching puberty are married off to smugglers. More alarmingly, many cases go unreported and according to one estimate there are thousands of cases like this in the southern provinces of Afghanistan.
In other cases, farmers are kidnapped by smugglers, who then seek the farmers’ younger daughters as brides for ransom. Their wives find no other alternative than to do accordingly to free their husbands. While Afghan law states the illegality of such activities, the government has barely any means to handle such heinous acts. These smugglers are even stronger than the Taliban because the money gained from selling opium goes to district officials, warlords and the Taliban - making it quite impossible to prevent.
Another crucial factor behind this opium trade is the popularity of opium cultivation among farmers. Unlike other crops opium needs less land and irrigation and yields considerably higher profits. This makes opium cultivation lucrative for the farmers of war-torn Afghanistan and allures them into the business. Consequently, more of them rush towards traffickers to borrow money and promise to pay with kilos of opium. As such, the government’s eradication efforts not only destroy the poppy lands but the farmers’ hope of a better future vanishes as well as their daughters.
There are no statistics on the number of girls who have been traded in this way. In Afghanistan, data collection norms are absent. Births and marriages are often unregistered in the country and it is impossible to know how many girls have been prey to these inhumane acts. Moreover, according to the women’s affairs department in a southern province of Afghanistan, young girls who are handed over to dealers often commit suicide and the number is increasing day by day. This kind of violence is generally kept secret; if the victim’s family complains a local council is convened for resolving the cases yet justice is often not ensured.
What seems crucial at this point is to find ways to evict drug smugglers from the Afghan border areas to save these girls’ lives. Admittedly, this will be a very tough thing to do as opiates like heroin and hashish, which are smuggled across the border, remain in high demand throughout Europe and Western America. Thus there are both supply and demand issues which have to be tackled if the problem is to be resolved.
Several organisations e.g., the Kandahar based Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) are working to raise voices against these cruel incidents. However according to Ahmad Shah, a legal Analyst of AIHRC, central government is actually doing very little to prevent these incidents from happening. Media, civil society and Afghanistan’s ally countries all must come forward to put pressure on the Afghan government so that they take urgent steps to stop these inhumane and barbarian acts. While global drug-trafficking prevention might appear ambitious, it is clear that the current government strategy of simply destroying poppy fields is both short-sighted and detrimental to the farmers and their families’ welfare.
Written by Tawhidul Alam and published on 23-February-2013