Child servitude, marriage resemble modern-day slavery

Haleem, aged nine, is a full-time servant for US$60 a month at Abdul Malik Khan’s house in Zherok District, Paktika Province, southeastern Afghanistan. His tasks range from cleaning, washing, serving tea and baby-sitting to night patrols and gate-keeping.

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Both Haleem’s father and his master say child servants are not at risk of sexual abuse, but the reality could be different.

“I offered my son for servitude for the survival of my whole family,” said Haleem’s father who declined to be identified. His destitute family lives in a mud hut 3km from Malik Khan’s house.

On the phone, Khan declined to comment on his young servant’s working and living conditions, saying journalists only turn “trivial and unimportant issues into a big problem”.

In Afghanistan, particularly in poor rural communities, child slavery and debt bondage practices are growing, but are often disguised as marriage, labour or family affairs not requiring state intervention.

Extreme poverty, lack of awareness about child rights, weak law enforcement and strong conservative traditions are among the problems which have pushed many minors - boys and girls - into situations of peonage, child rights activists say.

“These practices - the selling of children and servitude - have the very characteristics of modern slavery which have been overlooked by the government and other actors,” said Ajmal Samadi, an analyst of the Afghanistan Rights Monitor (ARM), a local rights watchdog.

Photo: Manoocher Deghati/IRIN
Some destitute parents offer their young daughters as “loan brides” in order to pay off loans, settle family or tribal feuds

“Loan brides”

Destitute parents sometimes also offer their young daughters as “loan brides” in order to pay off loans, settle family or tribal feuds and achieve other social and economic benefits.

Drug smugglers that pay poor farmers in advance for opium production, often demand young brides when farmers fail to produce opium and lack other means to repay their loans.

According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Afghanistan produces over 90 percent of the world’s heroin, generating an illicit economy worth over US$4 billion a year.

In the western province of Herat, the department of women’s affairs and a local rights watchdog said more than 150 cases of the selling of children, especially girls, were reported in 2008.

“There is no law to prevent child marriage and child sale,” Sima Shir Mohammadi, director of a women’s rights NGO in Herat Province, told IRIN, adding that the practice was “inhumane… and on the rise”.

“The judicial system and courts are notoriously corrupt and biased. People do not dare to seek justice through them,” said ARM’s Samadi.

Photo: Salih/IRIN
Children lack legal support and social protection services in Afghanistan

Domestic violence

Children who experience forced marriage and servitude often suffer physical, sexual and mental violence, experts say.

Research conducted by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission has also indicated widespread domestic violence against children and their inability to access protection services.

“They [child victims] are usually treated as slaves and re-sellable items,” said Shir Mohammadi, adding that there was a lack of legal and social protection and support for victims.

Afghanistan has one of the highest infant and maternal mortality rates in the world and child marriage (early pregnancy), multiple and short-spaced pregnancies and lack of access to basic health care are the main contributing factors, according to the UN Children’s Fund and other aid bodies.

Officials in the Ministry of Women’s Affairs said every month they verify dozens of cases of serious domestic violence against young women.

Young girls who experience forced marriage, sale and similar predicaments often lead a difficult life and some of them seek release through self-immolation and suicide.