Afghanistan: Trading Women

Afghanistan Today

Hajji Rais Khan, a white bearded resident of Nangarhar’s Dur Baba district, needed only to remove his false teeth and hand over 3,000 dollars to conclude the swift purchase of a young woman for his bride.

Two other local families had quarrelled over the terms of an already implemented swap of daughters for brides. One of the fathers then learned that instead of the girls being returned home by mutual arrangement, his counterpart had simply sold on his 20-year-old daughter to an old man for 4,000 dollars. He vowed in retaliation to sell the girl in his care to “a man with no teeth”.

“I went there and removed my plastic teeth and told the man that my wife passed away two months ago and that this girl was my destiny,” said Khan. “He gave her to me for 150,000 afghanis (3,000 dollars).”

A disturbing aberration perhaps, were it not for numerous and corroborated accounts of such sales of women like livestock. These are distinct from the entrenched Afghan custom of arranged marriages for fixed dowries, and often result in the victim being sold into a life of drudgery or passed on to further buyers. 

Some areas are notorious for trading women

A widespread practice in bygone times, the purchase and sale of women is today not uncommon in six of Nangarhar's districts inhabited by members of the large Shinwari tribe, say officials and rights advocates.

“Women are sold in different districts of Shinwari (areas) of Nangarhar and we have taken up cases on various occasions,” said Sabrina Hamidi, the director of the women’s rights advocacy department at the Independent Human Rights Commission in the eastern region.

The practice continued as a result of “illiteracy, poverty and abhorrent traditions,” said Hamidi. 

And after women are sold, contact is usually severed with their own family, often for the rest of their lives, which makes the women extremely vulnerable . Once sold, the woman effectively belongs to her buyer, his to work, abuse or resell as he sees fit.

In late 2011, “an elderly women came to us from Shinwari, saying that she and her sister were sold by her own family forty years ago,” Hamidi recalled. “After a long quest she finally managed to find her family once again, but there is still no trace of her sister.”

Former member of parliament and current women's rights activist Malalai Shinwari has tried to expose the practice at her own peril. In 2003 the then-journalist made a documentary that resulted in threats against her, but also cast valuable light on how the trade in women endures.

"If there is one change [today], then it is the way these deals are made. In the past the women were sold in open ways and in markets, but now both sides try to make these deals in secret ways," Shinwari said.

Opportunistic business in impoverished communities

A resident of the Ghani Khel district, Qari Gul Mohammad, said such transactions were still common there, and not so secretive. “When someone visits, everyone knows and can provide them with the name and address of a girl for sale.” 

According to him, the price depends on the beauty of a girl, and can range from around 80,000 to one million afghanis, or from 1,600 to 20,000 US  dollars. 

In some cases it happens due to poverty, but it can also be because the men are tired of their wives or the families want to get rid of daughters or widows, said Gholam Habib, another man in his sixties.

Strict local customs generally preclude that women are simply sold into prostitution, however. And they must usually be married off through Nekah (Islamic marriage), which also means they are not sold directly into slavery, he said. But this is a fine distinction, so low is the bought woman’s status in the new home, where she will be given the worst tasks like collecting firewood.

“They are treated almost like slaves, but they are married to a member of the family, which is a difference between them and a slave,” said Habib. 

A hard problem to quantify

It is hard to estimate the exact scale of this trade, since accounts in rural areas are often distorted by exaggeration and embellishment.

Yes, illiteracy, ignorance and poverty are widespread in the Shinwari territories, prompting some people to sell their daughters, said Malik Khudaidad, a tribal elder of Achin district. “But now the practice has decreased considerably and we are trying to put an end to it.”  

In Ghani Khel district, Zubair, the head of the district trial court, confirmed several accounts of such sales. The official said that in many cases a woman is sold on further, and can easily end up in bazaars in neighbouring Pakistan. “We currently we have five or six cases where a single woman was sold three or four times.” 

Government and advocacy efforts are bearing fruit

But some culprits are brought to justice, the official said: “Two months ago a man sold his wife in the Terrah area of Pakistan, and was brought to trial and sentenced to three years in jail.”

"We have begun a campaign [against this], we reviewed cases of transgressions, shared them with the Independent Human Rights Commission and alerted police and law enforcement authorities to abusers." 

But he said that since the buying and selling of women is done secretly, it will require ordinary citizens to assist efforts to stamp it out entirely.

The head of Nangarhar’s Department for Women’s Affairs, Anisah Omrani, confirmed that the problem continues, but that public awareness campaigns are starting to bear fruit and that people are now supporting the cause. 

“Previously these issues were more likely to remain unnoticed, but now to a large degree they are revealed,” she said.  

Sabrina Hamidi of the Independent Human Rights Commission said the practice should be viewed in the wider context of the abuse of women in the eastern provinces. As well as involving extreme violence against them, this can mean denial of inheritance, refusal of accommodation and sustenance, and forced marriages at a very early age.

“It is imperative and necessary for the government, foreign donor institutions, civil society, the general public, the imams and family members to teach people and family members to respect women and avoid committing violence against women,” she said.