HERAT, Afghanistan -- Akhtar Mohammad faced a life-or-death decision: Let his entire family starve, or sell his 2-year-old daughter.
A farmer from the northwestern Afghan province of Badghis, Mohammad lost his livelihood during Afghanistan's worst drought in living memory.
Unable to grow crops to feed his family, and burdened by debt, his family first started to skip meals. Then he sold their three sheep. Then Mohammad reluctantly made the hardest decision of his life.
"I was compelled to sell my daughter," says Mohammad, who has been living with his family for the past few months in a swelling makeshift camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) outside the western city of Herat, where tattered tents dot the rocky desert.
"I had no money, and I needed to feed my family," he adds. "I did it out of hunger."
Mohammad, who is in his 30s, said he sold his daughter for 150,000 afghanis (around $2,000) to a buyer he does not name. He kept his other child, a 4-year-old son.
For now, Mohammad can still spend time with his daughter, a red-haired toddler who sports ragged, traditional clothing. He has received half of the money from the buyer and will hand her over for good when he gets the rest in the next few weeks.
"My only other option was to beg on the streets," explains Mohammad, dressed in a red checkered cap and brown robes. "But even then, it wouldn't have been enough."
'We Sold Her At This Camp'
The UN's children's agency (UNICEF) has said at least 161 children between the ages of 1 month and 16 years were either betrothed or married off in exchange for a dowry, or sold outright by their parents from July to October in the provinces of Badghis and neighboring Herat. UNICEF said parents were using the money to pay off debts or to buy food.
The legal marriage age for girls is 16 and 18 for men, but child marriage is common in rural Afghanistan.
UNICEF says incidences of child marriage and child-selling, which are not unheard of in the most impoverished and conservative areas of the war-torn country, have been exacerbated by a devastating drought.
UNICEF says around 223,000 people have been uprooted from their homes in the drought-hit western provinces of Herat, Badghis, and Ghor this year.
“The extremely early child marriages or sale of children is symptom of a deeper and more complex social problem related to poverty, lack of employment and livelihoods, and social norms. Its solution lies in addressing the root causes that led to this displacement crisis in the first place, notably lack of livelihoods, lack of employment, high levels of poverty, drought, and conflict," says Alison Parker, UNICEF's chief of communication in Afghanistan.
Suraya Pakzad, who heads Voice of Women, a nongovernmental organization based in Afghanistan, said there had been a clear increase in the number of families selling young girls.
"It is very, very shocking," said Pakzad, speaking at a UN-sponsored conference on Afghanistan in Geneva on November 27. "Girls aged between 8 to 12 years old are being sold to old men to solve the economic issues...of their families."
Mohammad Hanif is another resident of the camp outside Herat. He, too, says he was compelled to sell a daughter -- his 5-month-old -- to ensure the survival of his family.
Hanif, a farmer also from Badghis, says he was forced to leave his home and seek shelter in the camp in Herat because of the devastating drought. He lost his crops and his livelihood.
He sold his only daughter for 120,000 afghanis (around $1,600) a few months ago. His daughter will also remain with them until the buyer pays the sum in full, he says.
"She was born in this camp and we sold her at this camp," says Hanif, sitting in a tiny tent with his wife as she nurses the infant, wrapped in a dirty blanket.
"Did I have a choice? You tell me," adds Hanif.
'Giving Up One Or More Children'
The Department of Refugees and Repatriations says nearly 12,000 families who have left their homes live in squalid camps outside Herat's provincial capital, Herat city. Many have moved there from all over northwestern Afghanistan because it is easier to access aid and services.
"We have 11,954 families that have been registered here in Herat," says Abdul Hamid, the head of the office. "We have given these families tents, clothes, cooking utensils, and food."
International and local aid organizations have been distributing food, water, and blankets. But residents say many of them have yet to receive assistance.
"We have been here for the last five months and the government has not done anything to help us," says Mohammad, who lives with his wife, children, and elderly father in a tent constructed from dirty sheets of plastic. "We're still waiting for help."