DEH MAGAS, Afghanistan - A hailstorm wiped out his poppy crop, so Abdul Satar will have to hand over his 13-year-old daughter, Esther, to a 70-year-old drug lord to pay off the family's debt.
Officially, it's a marriage.
"We don't have any choice. If the money lender wants our land or daughters, we have to do whatever makes him happy," the aging farmer says, his eyes welling with tears as his daughter sits next to him in their mud-brick shack.
Esther quietly fingers the black scarf that covers her hair. Asked how she feels about her impending wedding to local drug baron Khan Mohammed, she looks down at her feet. "I don't want to marry him," she whispers.
Almost five years after a U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan led to the overthrow of the Taliban and the establishment of a democratically elected government, Esther's predicament underscores the persistence of a feudal economic system in parts of rural Afghanistan and the continuing low status of women and girls.
Parents traditionally arrange the marriages of their daughters, who often have little say in the matter.
Few fathers would want their daughters to become the second wife of an elderly drug dealer, but Abdul Satar says he has no choice. He is at the bottom of Afghanistan's economic ladder an indebted poppy farmer in northeastern Badakhshan province, where the land is too poor to grow much else.
The drug lord in the poor village of Deh Magas demanded a daughter to settle the debt the family accumulated over the winter, buying dry goods from the shop the dealer runs.
When its harvest of poppies, which are used to make opium, was wiped out, the family had no other way to repay him.
"We would just buy tea, sugar and flour, small amounts. I'm sure we didn't spend $2,000, but he says we did and there is nothing we can do," says the girl's mother, Bibi Sahra.
She says the family struggles to feed its 10 children.
And there is nowhere to turn for help in the mountain villages of Badakhshan, where government authority is weak and the richest and most powerful men are the drug dealers. War on drugs
President Hamid Karzai declared a war on drugs when he was elected in 2004, but the central government has little reach outside Kabul.
In fact, almost half of the local police in the remote northeastern province are profiting from the drug trade, despite a government drive to wipe out poppy crops, local officials said.
U.S.-backed eradication teams journeyed to Badakhshan last year to cut down poppy fields in an effort that Western governments have proclaimed a success.
The number of hectares of poppies under cultivation across Afghanistan fell by 20 percent in 2005, according to the U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime. A hectare is about 2 1/2 acres.
In Badakhshan, the number of poppy fields fell by 53 percent last year, but farmers say the poorest families suffered as a result.
And since last year, there has been a surge in reports of child marriage to pay off debts, although precise numbers are not available.
"Ten years ago, before people started growing opium, you saw people selling their daughters, selling their children, and now it's happening again. People are desperate and are looking for husbands for girls as young as 8 to make ends meet," said Fazel Rahman, a trader in the Argu bazaar, a market near Deh Magas where opium and heroin are traded.
In rural Afghanistan, opium functions as a form of credit, with drug dealers advancing small farmers money to be paid back in raw opium at harvest time.
If the harvest fails or is eradicated, the loan sharks move in. Few choices
"Usually when people borrow from money lenders, they have to sell their land, cows and sheep, and if they don't have those things, then they have to give up their daughters," says Abdul Hadi Karimi, director of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission.
"Even if the father is not happy, his hand is forced.
By law, the age of consent is 17 for girls, he says, but indebted farmers have few choices: "Across Badakhshan, where the government has promised compensation, they have not done anything to help poor farmers."
Despite the advent of democracy in Afghanistan, women are still widely viewed as the property of their families.
"When the dealer asked for a daughter to marry to pay off the debt, I didn't think to ask my family. I just said yes," Abdul Satar says, adding that when he went home and broke the news, his oldest daughter became hysterical and threatened suicide.
"It's not like the old days when you could just lead the girls by the nose like cattle into marriage. Now they have heard all about human rights on the radio," he adds.
Esther's older sister, Chai-Esther, 14, threatened to walk for 24 hours over the mountains to the office of the human rights commission in the provincial capital of Faizabad to report her family if she was forced into marriage.
Her mother said the family sent Chai-Esther to stay with relatives in another village to calm her down.
"My daughter has been to school for years. She can read, and she won't accept the marriage quietly," the mother explains.
Now the old man has a problem. Neither of the girls wants to marry the drug dealer.
"I love my sister. She spent all day crying, and I was crying, too," Esther says. "I'm still telling my father that if he gives either of us to that man, we will kill ourselves."
But the drug dealer won't take no for an answer. Khan Mohammed has told the father that he wants a bride soon, regardless of whether she is willing.
"The money lender said: 'I don't care how many times a day she is crying. I want you to marry her to me,' " Abdul Satar says, looking around the muddy shack at the other hungry children he has to feed. "But if she is not happy, how can I force her?"
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