HELMAND: On 4 November 2006, Nasima, 25, a member of a local women’s council, grabbed the AK-47 from the policeman guarding the council meeting in the Grishk district of southern Helmand province and killed herself.
She had had enough of the daily beatings by her husband. Like many other women in Helmand, Nasima was given away by her family in 2005. Her father owed a huge amount to an opium dealer and, unable to return the money or provide the quantity of opium he had promised, he offered his daughter to the smuggler, who already had a wife and four children. Under Islamic law and in many Muslim countries a man is allowed up to four wives.
Nyamat [a former intelligence agent] and an Afghan trafficker singled out Gen. Mohammed Daoud, a former warlord who is Afghanistan's deputy interior minister in charge of the anti-drug effort.
The Kunduz trafficker said he wasn't worried. He counts Daoud as one of his connections. Late in the summer of 2003, he said, Daoud helped him retrieve heroin worth $200,000 that had been seized at the Salang Tunnel
"Nasima was enduring a bitter life in the family. The family members and her husband considered her as an extra burden," Gulalai, head of the local women’s council in Grishk district, told IRIN.
Nasima's case is just one of hundreds of such incidents where women are traded for debts. Most go unreported in the troubled southern provinces, where most of the opium in Afghanistan is produced.
The practice is also reported in other provinces, particularly the east and the north, but the stakes are higher in the south, the heartland for drug trading.
In another case in the Marja district of Helmand, 18-year-old Saliha considers herself lucky to be living a relatively peaceful life. "I was 13 when my father married me off to a 20-year-old man, whose father had given a loan to my parents and they were unable to return the amount or the quantity of opium," Saliha said.
She says she is fortunate to be the first wife and only wife for her husband, who is only seven years older and not double her age, which is common in this part of the country.
Qais Bawari, acting head of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) for the southern region, based in Kandahar, said they received 69 cases of self-immolation and murders from Helmand and Kandahar provinces in 2006 alone. He said several were related to marriages in exchange for drugs. "Unfortunately many of the cases of violence against women go unreported and a very small proportion is reported to us," Bawari said.
He said people were reluctant to report cases regarding domestic violence against women for fear of reprisals.
Afghanistan produces more than 90 percent of the opium available in the world today. Human rights activists say local drug dealers pay in advance to farmers for their poppy yield but they often end up giving their daughters to the drug traffickers when they fail to harvest the expected yield.
The sale of opium is banned in Afghanistan – but since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, the crop has re-emerged as a profitable trade. Despite government efforts and international pressure, poppy farmers are reluctant to give up their crop in return for a less lucrative alternative in a country where poverty is rife.
Afghanistan and its female population are at the bottom of the global poverty scale. The country is the fourth lowest in the world for living standards and third lowest in gender disparities, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) stated in August 2006.
Ahmad Shah Mirdad, legal analyst with AIHRC in Kabul, criticised central government for doing little to stem the growing problems faced by women in the country.
"Stronger efforts are needed to battle these awful and discriminatory practices in our communities," Mirdad said.
Some say the status of women has not changed much since the ousting of the Taliban, which enforced strict rules on the movement of women and curtailed their rights. Head of the women’s affairs department in Helmand, Fawzia Ulomi, said more than 20 women and girls had committed suicide over the past 10 months - most of them had been handed over to dealers instead of drugs, or to settle family disputes.
Cases of violence are generally kept secret in rural areas but if the victim or family chooses to complain, tribal Jirgas or local councils are convened to resolve it. Such cases were rarely referred to the women's affairs department or other concerned authorities, Ulomi said.