By Anna Coren, Rebecca Wright and Abdul Basir Bina, CNN
Driving through a snow-capped mountain pass, the young mother huddles together with her six children in the backseat of a car after leaving their makeshift camp in northwestern Afghanistan.
Carrying only a blanket for warmth, 9-year-old Parwana Malik balances on her mother’s lap beside her siblings, as the family is rescued by an aid group that saves girls from child marriage.
“I am really happy,” Parwana said during the journey. “The (charity) rid me from my husband and my husband is old.”
Last month, CNN reported that Parwana and several other underage girls were being sold by their fathers so other members of their families could eat.
At the time, Parwana’s father Abdul Malik said she cried day and night before, begging him not to sell her, saying she wanted to go to school and study instead.
After an international outcry as a result of CNN’s story, Parwana was returned to her family due to the backlash from the community against the buyer.
The United States-based non-profit Too Young to Wed (TYTW) had also got involved to relocate the girls, their siblings and their mothers to a safe house.
“This is a temporary solution,” said Stephanie Sinclair, the founder of TYTW. “(But) really what we’re trying to do is prevent girls being sold into marriage.”
Afghanistan under pressure
Afghanistan’s economic lifelines have been severed since mid-August when the Taliban assumed control after American and allied forces departed. Billions of dollars in central bank assets have been frozen, banks are running out of cash and wages have gone unpaid for months.
Now, aid agencies and rights groups including Human Rights Watch are warning that the country’s poorest people are facing a famine as the brutally cold winter takes hold.
More than half of the country’s roughly 39 million population will face emergency levels of acute hunger by March, according to a recent report by IPC, which assesses food insecurity. The report estimates that more than 3 million children under the age of five are already suffering acute malnutrition.
“The international community is turning its back as the country teeters on the precipice of man-made catastrophe,” said Dominik Stillhart, director of operations for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), who just returned from a six-day visit to Afghanistan.
Even before the Taliban took over, hunger was rife in the impoverished country, and now young girls are paying the price with their bodies — and their lives.
“Afghan young girls (are) becoming the price of food,” leading Afghan women’s rights activist Mahbouba Seraj told CNN. “Because otherwise their family will starve.”
Even though marriage under the age of 15 is illegal nationwide, it has been commonly practiced for years, especially in more rural parts of Afghanistan. And the situation has deteriorated since August, as families become more desperate.
“Usually there is a lot of misery, there is a lot of mistreatment, there is a lot of abuse involved in these things,” Seraj said, adding that some girls forced into marriage die during childbirth because their bodies are too small to cope. “Some of them can’t take it. They mostly die pretty young.”
Women have long been treated as second-class citizens in Afghanistan, which was ranked as the worst country in the world for women in the 2021 Women, Peace and Security Index.
And since the Taliban took over, many of the basic rights that women had fought for over the past two decades have been stripped away.
Limits have been imposed on girls’ education, women are banned from certain workplaces and actresses can no longer appear in TV dramas.
Escape from servitude
After a four-hour journey through mountain roads, Parwana’s family arrived late at night at a small hotel in Herat, Afghanistan’s third largest city. They were escorted on their journey by a local representative of Too Young to Wed, along with the mother, Reza Gul, and her brother, Payinda.
Reza Gul and Payinda told CNN Parwana’s father had initiated her sale against their wishes. “Of course, I was angry, I fought him, and I cried,” Reza Gul said. “He said that he didn’t have any option.”
CNN was given permission to film Parwana’s sale on October 24 to a 55-year-old man with white hair for cash, sheep and land worth around $2,200 (200,000 Afghanis).
“My father has sold me because we don’t have bread, rice and flour,” Parwana told CNN at the time. “He has sold me to an old man.”
The buyer, Qorban, told CNN it would be his “second marriage,” and he insisted that Parwana would be treated kindly.
Parwana’s mother said her daughter begged to return home to her family and was allowed a few visits back to their camp.
“She said that they beat her, and she didn’t want to stay there,” Reza Gul said.
“They treated me badly, they were cursing me, they were waking me up early and making me work,” Parwana added.
After the CNN story into Parwana’s situation was published, the community outrage which the buyer Qorban received pushed him into hiding, according to the family. CNN has since been unable to reach him or his family for comment.
In a follow-up CNN interview, Parwana’s father said he also came under criticism, and he felt pressured to change his story on the marriage in interviews with some local media outlets. He confirmed his original interview with CNN and apologized.
About two weeks after her sale, Parwana was returned to her family, but her father still owes the equivalent of $2,200 to the buyer. He had used the proceeds to pay off other debts.
‘They gave me a new life’
Parwana and her five siblings were initially tired from the long drive and the sensory overload of the bright lights and traffic of the city. But once settled, they soon started rolling around and giggling together on the bed, enjoying their new adventure.
After two nights at the hotel, the family was transferred by Too Young to Wed’s team to a nearby safe house — Parwana’s first experience of living in a real home. For the past four years, the family lived in a tent in a camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Qala-e-Naw in Badghis province.
“I’m feeling so happy in this house,” Parwana told CNN. “They gave me a new life.”
“I feel happy and safe here,” said Reza Gul. “My children are eating well since we came, they are playing, and we are feeling happy.”
The family will stay in the house through the winter months and be supported and protected by TYTW, which routinely conducts this type of rescue.
The longer-term plan for Parwana’s family is still unclear, Stephanie Sinclair of TYTW added, and will depend on funding for the shelter.
“It is a moral imperative that the international community does not abandon the women and girls of Afghanistan,” Sinclair said. “Every life matters, and the lives that we can save (will) better the experience of their whole family and their community.”
Separately, TYTW is also trying to deliver food aid into the Qala-e-Naw camp, which is home to around 150 people. This is also aimed at helping Parwana’s father as he stays back there to try to work off his debt. He gave permission to TYTW to rehouse his wife and children.
“We are happy that Parwana is rescued,” the father said before his family left. “We are happy that (TYTW) will help us and they will provide a place for living.”
‘Tip of the iceberg’
Families across Afghanistan are facing similar desperate financial situations.
CNN’s report also profiled two families from Ghor Province in northwestern Afghanistan, who were preparing to sell their young daughters.
Magul, 10, was just days away from being sold into marriage when CNN’s report was published. She had threatened to kill herself if the sale went through.
The sales of the girls are now on hold and TYTW is working to try to rescue them along with their mothers and siblings — and relocate them to the same shelter where Parwana’s family now lives.
Women’s rights activists like Mahbouba Seraj, who runs a shelter for women and girls in Kabul, say the worst is still to come for the women of Afghanistan.
“This is just the beginning of it, this is really the tip of the iceberg,” Seraj said. “It will keep on happening, with hunger, with winter, with poverty, with all of this ignorance.”
A local Taliban leader told CNN that they are trying to end the illegal practice of child marriage.
Mawlawi Baz Mohammad Sarwary, the head of the Badghis information and cultural directorate, described the practice as “common” in the area due to extreme poverty.
“Child marriage is not a good thing and we condemn it,” said Sarwary. “Some are forced because they are poor.”
He also appealed to international groups and governments to send aid to save families from starvation.
“We want their help for the Badghis people,” Sarwary said. “We will provide them security; what we have we will coordinate with them and all of them are allowed to work.”
Stillhart from the ICRC says governments need to release funding for Afghanistan urgently, to prevent hospitals and basic services from collapsing.
“I plead with the international community to find solutions that allow maintenance of these essential services,” Stillhart told CNN. “That indeed requires (an) injection of liquidity and cash because (the) whole economy in Afghanistan has shrunk by a staggering 40% since the end of August, because of the suspension of bilateral aid.”
Non-profit organizations still operating on the ground in Afghanistan are also calling for more coordinated action to help the country’s poorest people.
At the local market in Herat, TYTW helped Parwana’s family to gather kitchen supplies and food.
“We were awake every night due to hunger,” Parwana’s mother Reza Gul said. “Now we are happy this charity helped us and brought us to Herat.”
Parwana, now freed from a life spent with a husband six times her age, is excited about the prospect of attending school.
“I would like to study to become a doctor,” Parwana said. “I would like to study to serve my people.”
For those fighting for women’s rights in Afghan society, Parwana’s determination to achieve a better future for herself and her country provides a glimmer of hope that the next generation of girls can overcome the lack of value placed on their lives.
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CNN’s Jessie Yeung and Jadyn Sham contributed reporting.