The following is a guest post from Una Moore, who blogs for U.N. Dispatch. Thanks Una!
Human rights abuses in Afghanistan are too often wrapped in euphemisms and exoticism. Think: “opium brides.” The term conjures images of dark-eyed women sensually smoking from opium pipes while sitting on silk cushions, but it actually refers to little girls who are handed over to drug lords (who subsequently rape, traffic and sometimes kill them) by their indigent families as “repayment” for poppy crop debts. Most international media outlets are guilty of using terms like “opium bride” for people who, were they not South/Central Asian, would simply, bluntly, accurately be called victims of human trafficking. Because that’s what they are.
Given the prevalence of this double standard, I was surprised today when I read the New York Times article ‘For Punishment of Elder’s Misdeeds, Afghan Girl Pays the Price.’ In describing one of the most violent and heinous violations of women’s human rights in Afghanistan today, the NYT calls the practice of “baad” what it actually is: the enslavement of young girls and women for purposes of sexual exploitation and manual labor. It even used the s-word!
Despite being denounced by the United Nations as a “harmful traditional practice,” baad is pervasive in rural southern and eastern Afghanistan, areas that are heavily Pashtun, according to human rights workers, women’s advocates and aid experts. Baad involves giving away a young woman, often a child, into slavery and forced marriage. It is largely hidden because the girls are given to compensate for “shameful” crimes like murder and adultery and acts forbidden by custom, like elopement, say elders and women’s rights advocates.
The article tells the story of Shakila, a 10-year-old girl who was taken, along with her young cousin, by a family of local thugs in her native Kunar as punishment for her uncle running away with the wife of a warlord. Tied up in a dark room, starved, kept filthy, and beaten for months, Shakila finally escaped and made her way back to her parents. Her abusers quickly chased after her, and her family was then left with no choice but to flee from their village to the provincial capital. When interviewed by the NYT, Shakila’s father explains that it wasn’t the fact that his daughter was thrown against walls and fed only water and bread for months on end that bothered him most, it was the fact that he’d already promised Shakila to someone else by the time she was taken.
We did not mind giving girls,” said her father, Gul Zareen. “But she was not mine to give.”
Men like those who abused Shakila continue to operate with impunity in areas where there is little government presence to speak of and where local people rely on tribal dispute resolution mechanisms, the article goes on to explain. If you’ve worked in Afghanistan, as I have, you’ve heard it all before: people don’t trust the government, the courts are corrupt, tribal customs are deeply rooted, and so on. And all of that is true, but the NYT article highlights something else, something that gets at the real reason there’s so little meaningful opposition to baad –the grim fact that many urban, pro-government Afghan men support baad and similar practices that destroy the lives of Afghan women.
Take, for example, these jaw-dropping quotes from a member of parliament from Nangarhar province, another hot spot for the enslavement and trafficking of women and girls.
“Giving baad has good and bad aspects,” said Fraidoon Mohmand, a member of Parliament from Nangarhar Province, who has led a number of jirgas. “The bad aspect is that you punish an innocent human for someone else’s wrongdoings, and the good aspect is that you rescue two families, two clans, from more bloodshed, death and misery.”
[...] “When you give a girl in baad, they are beaten maybe, maybe she will be in trouble for a year or two, but when she brings one or two babies into the world, everything will be forgotten and she will live as a normal member of the family,” he said.
Did you get that? Enslaving women and girls isn’t really so terrible, because the rapes and beatings ease up after a few years and a few forced pregnancies.
Let that sink in for a few minutes.