By M. Mursal and Zahra Nader
The alleged sale of an Afghan man’s 9-year-old daughter to a man six times her age made international headlines earlier this month after American broadcaster CNN aired the exchange. But several people connected to the family, including the father himself, have told Rukhshana Media that the story was fabricated.
“I didn’t sell her into marriage,” said the father, Abdul Malik, recounting how CNN had filmed him with his uncle, to whom he owes 350,000 Afghani, about $3,800. “He took my daughter as collateral until I pay him back,” Malik said in a phone interview on November 9, eight days after the CNN broadcast.
In the “exclusive” CNN report, which aired on American prime time during host Jake Tapper’s newscast, The Lead, viewers witness Malik accepting money from a 55-year-old man called Qorban in exchange for his daughter, Parwana. The girl is shown giggling with siblings and playing with make-up before being taken by Qorban for marriage, at the price of $2,200. “His large hands grab her small frame. Parwana tries to pull away… But it is futile. The fate of the small, helpless child has been sealed,” a female voiceover says ominously.
Malik, who has six daughters, said the money his uncle handed him was actually an additional loan. “The journalists asked me if we could re-enact the episode in front of them. And we did it,” Malik said in one of several interviews.
“We fundamentally reject the entire premise of this article. We stand absolutely by our reporting, which was put together by trusted, experienced Afghan journalists and CNN staff with deep knowledge of Afghanistan,” a CNN spokesperson said in response to Rukhshana Media’s request for comment.
The segment makes for uncomfortable viewing. Child marriage was well-documented and prevelant in Afghanistan long before the Taliban swept to power in August at lightning speed, toppling the Afghan government and winning the American war.
But increased poverty and extreme hunger are pushing more Afghans to sell their children, mostly daughters, to survive, and there have been widespread reports of the practice in local and foreign media, including the BBC, in recent weeks. The Afghan economy has collapsed amid a years-long drought, millions of dollars of lost income and withheld aid, becoming, in the words of World Food Programme director David Beasley earlier this week, “the worst humanitarian crisis on Earth”. Girls and women are disproportionately affected by the financial crisis, who face greater obstacles getting food, health care and financial resources, Human Rights Watch said on Thursday.
Malik and his family are extremely poor. For the past four years, they have lived in an internal displacement camp in Qala-i-Naw, the capital of northwestern Badghis province, where around 350 families have taken shelter in dire conditions, living in tents between muddy walls.
The allegations highlight the increasing difficulty of reporting in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, where most media outlets have shut down in recent months. Journalists who remain often operate in an atmosphere of fear and self-censorship with severely reduced access to official information.
The story of a fabrication was first reported on November 7 by the local Badghis radio station, Naraiman. Others at the camp corroborated Malik’s claim that the sale of his daughter was performed for the camera.
The camp representative, Jalil Hafiz, described Malik as an impoverished opium addict. “The two men (in the CNN story) are uncle and nephew. They made up the story to get help,” Hafiz told Rukhshana Media.
Malik said he received no money from CNN, nor anyone else, in exchange for being filmed.
A camp neighbour and family friend who goes by one name, Qari, said Malik’s “relatives are now threatening him for what he has done” because the story “is not true.”
Considering the two men at the heart of the story are closely related, the potential union between Parwana and her father’s uncle would be considered incest in Afghan society. “The story is totally a lie, it’s completely untrue,” said the camp’s mullah, Ahmad Shah, noting that Malik and Parwana were filmed by CNN in a house in an urban setting even though they all live in the camp.
As for Parwana, she still lives with her father and not with her alleged new husband. On one of the occasions when a Rukhshana Media reporter called Malik, Parwana answered his cell phone, saying her father had popped out. But life for the young girl is anything but rosy: “Please hang up, he’s coming,” she said, scared. “My father will beat me.”