Ninety-five percent of Afghans lack enough food for winter, says UN World Food Program

Desperate to feed her family, Saleha, a housecleaner in western Afghanistan, incurred a debt of $550 that her lender will write off if she hands over her 3-year-old daughter, Najiba.

Alex Anas Ahmed Calgary AB

According to the United Nations' World Food Program, most Afghans risk malnourishment heading into the winter months. They warned that "people are being pushed to the brink of survival."

Ninety-five percent of the Afghan population could find themselves below the poverty line in the coming months because of countless personal tragedies.

Desperate to feed her family, Saleha, a housecleaner in western Afghanistan, incurred a debt of $550 that her lender will write off if she hands over her 3-year-old daughter, Najiba. Saleha, 40, is a mother of six, earning 70 cents a day cleaning homes in a wealthier neighborhood of Herat.

Displaced by the worsening humanitarian crisis and severe drought, Saleha's family moved to an encampment in Herat. At this time, her much older husband doesn't have any work. She also collects plastic bottles and other trash to sell for recycling to make money for food.

Prices for flour and cooking oil doubled since mid-August. At the World Food Program, people get sacks of flour, lentils, and cooking oil bottles, enough to keep a family going for a month.

Saleha has three months to pay back the lender, or else Najiba will be forced into household work and be married off to one of his three sons when she reaches puberty. She said, "If life continues to be this awful, I will kill my children and myself."

"I will try to find money to save my daughter's life," added her husband, Abdul Wahab, who adds they don't know what they will eat tonight.

The lender, Khalid Ahmad, confirmed he had made the offer to the couple. "I also don't have money. They haven't paid me back," said Ahmad. "So there is no option but taking the daughter."

Other families in the area have had to surrender children to repay debts, said residents at the encampment. They acknowledged that collecting plastic bottles and other trash to sell for recycling is the primary source of income for many families.

Growing hardship could undermine the Taliban's hold on the region and act as a recruiting tool for their sole significant rival, the Islamic State. A Taliban official said that Afghan residents have to get used to their meagre existence.

"We suffered for 20 years fighting jihad, we lost members of our families, we didn't have proper food, and in the end, we were rewarded with this government. If people have to struggle for a few months, so what?" said the official. "Popularity is not important for the Taliban."

While Taliban officials repeatedly said they welcome international aid for Afghanistan, they refused to compromise on their beliefs to secure assistance. But the ongoing debate within the international community on whether to tie the foreign assistance on the Taliban moderating their behavior and showing more respect for the rights of women and minorities appears to be a point of possible contention.

However, groups like the International Committee of the Red Cross and the UN urge for unconditional humanitarian aid because preventing starvation is a "more urgent priority" than promoting the rights of women and minorities.

Jan Egeland, a former head of the UN's emergency aid arm, said his organization wouldn't reopen the boys' schools in provinces where girls' schools weren't allowed, but it wouldn't withhold aid that could save lives.

"These countries who have their fingerprints all over the sorry situation here have at least to disburse the funding we need so we can avoid people perishing in enormous numbers this winter," she said. "To pause the lifesaving funding because we're still negotiating female rights would be utterly wrong."

Heather Barr, associate director of the women's rights division at Human Rights Watch, said that donors had vowed they would judge the Taliban by its actions, but the risk of famine left them with little choice but to provide aid regardless.

"The Taliban are holding Afghans hostage and playing chicken with the international community," she said.


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