top of page

Episode 02: Ruchi Kumar on climate, conflict, and bride price in Afghanistan

In this episode, we speak with independent journalist Ruchi Kumar, who has spent nearly a decade reporting on conflict, violence, gender and culture in South Asia with a special focus on Afghanistan. We dive deeper into the ways in which the blistering heatwaves, droughts and floods coupled with the return of the Taliban, have led to an alarming rise in early and forced marriages in the war-torn country, particularly in the camps for the internally displaced populations. Tune in to learn more.

Episode 02: Ruchi Kumar on climate, conflict, and bride price in Afghanistan

In this episode, we speak with independent journalist Ruchi Kumar, who has spent nearly a decade reporting on conflict, violence, gender and culture in South Asia with a special focus on Afghanistan. We dive deeper into the ways in which the blistering heatwaves, droughts and floods coupled with the return of the Taliban, have led to an alarming rise in early and forced marriages in the war-torn country, particularly in the camps for the internally displaced populations. Tune in to learn more.

Reetika Revathy Subramanian: Welcome to the Climate Brides podcast, where we try to untie the knots between climate change and child marriage. My name is Reetika Revathy Subramanian, and I am your host. Join me as I speak with survivors, frontline workers, activists, journalists, and researchers in and from South Asia, to unpack the everyday lives and resistances of young communities braving some of the biggest challenges of the 21st century.

Subscribe now wherever you get your podcasts.

The Climate Brides podcast is supported by the University of Cambridge Public Engagement Starter Fund 2021. If you want to learn more about today’s topic, head over to our website, where we will have full transcripts of the episode, a specially curated reading list, climate models and infographics. Until then, follow the Climate Brides page on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook to stay tuned, and stay updated.

Reetika Revathy Subramanian: On August 15, 2021, as the world watched the Taliban take control over Kabul and complete their return to power, a longer-term crisis was building in the backdrop in Afghanistan: of intense droughts, flash floods, and blistering heatwaves.

Years of conflict and oppression along with the pandemic and extreme weather events are fast turning Afghanistan into the most food insecure country in the world. In hopeless attempts to feed their families, herders have been forced to sell their livestock, farmers to flee their villages, and parents marrying their daughters at ever younger ages.

In today’s episode, we are joined by Ruchi Kumar, an independent journalist, who has spent nearly a decade reporting on conflict, politics, gender and culture in South Asia, with a special focus on Afghanistan.

Hi Ruchi, thank you so much for joining me on the Climate Brides podcast today. I am really looking forward to this conversation. Let’s dive straight in. You know, Afghanistan is considered to be one of the most vulnerable nations to climate change impacts in the world. If we were to go by statistics, between 1950 and 2010, temperatures here have risen by 1.8°C, which is twice the global average. So, I was wondering based on the work that you’ve done on the ground what does this climate crisis look like, particularly for families living in the Internally Displaced Persons Camps, or the IDP camps, where you’ve reported extensively from?

Ruchi Kumar: Sure. This is a story that I've actually covered multiple times over the last few years. I think the first time was in 2017. And then in 2018, I actually went to IDP camps in in Herat. A lot of my stories that I focused on also are about migration, and I have written a lot about the internally displaced communities within Afghanistan. A lot of them are displaced because of conflict, but a significant number of them are also displaced because of natural disasters, and you know, the state's inability to provide the support in scenarios of natural disasters. So, that actually means that if an area is hit by floods or by drought, there is very little relief provided from the state to the communities that are affected, forcing them to leave those areas and migrate to other areas and, you know, are subjected to abject poverty. So, I actually visited quite a few of these IDP camps. And I had managed to in August last year, just weeks before the Taliban takeover, go to IDP camps in Mazar. There was, it was a very mixed kind of account, because conflict was already waging in Afghanistan, especially in the south, but also especially in the north.

Even before the Taliban takeover, the national response to climate change was very weak. There was some amount of funding coming from the west, to help with the climate change policies with environmental impact policies, and of course, in disaster response, but it was not proportionate to the kinds of problems they were facing, and it was not implemented proportionately. So, you know, experiencing drought in your village, meant literally the end of the world. There was no easy immediate solution provided from states that were no easy solutions provided from even the NGOs and the aid sector, aid industry, which is so big over there fail to provide sustainable solutions to agrarian communities when they face drought or when they were you know, witnessing floods and avalanches.

I spoke to one of the one of the climate scientists, and this is something very interesting that he said, you know, it is such a sad thing that, you know, again, Afghanistan is facing all these impacts of climate change. While they've not been contributors to the climate change. They actually, you know, the, the contribution of Afghan citizens to climate change has been very minimal, and yet they are facing some of the worst consequences in at a time when they have no capacity to respond to them.

Reetika Revathy Subramanian: Right, absolutely, and I think this is also the most distressing part of this conversation and often remains unspoken in global exchanges on the climate crisis. This brings me to the other big crisis that the Afghans are facing alongside: the return of the Taliban and the rise in conflict, violence, insecurities. Ruchi, what have you been hearing from communities and activists back in the country at this moment, particularly from the IDP camps?

Ruchi Kumar: Right, we're already in touch with people in the city of Mazar, and in other parts of the country. And Afghanistan right now is going through one of the worst financial crisis in history, one of the worst humanitarian crisis in history. In fact, the economy was largely supported on, you know, Western funding and on aid, which got cut off when the Taliban took control. Right now, as the Taliban have no resources, no capacities, no expertise in managing a country and as a result there's been a financial collapse, and people have lost savings, people have lost businesses, businesses have shut down, and women-led businesses have completely, you know, nearly almost disappeared, very few of them are operating. Interestingly, in the city of Mazar, so the camps are outside Mazar, prior to August 15, Mazar or the province of Balkh had the largest number of women-led businesses in the country. It was a very progressive, cosmopolitan city and a lot of women in Mazar engaged in small and medium businesses. And now, much of it, like majority of it, has gone and there's no way to calculate the damage, but anecdotally, again, a lot of the women have been forced to close down their businesses. Many still continue, which is like amazing of them. But overall, they are not making a lot of money. The average income has fallen and you know, the middle class has significantly collapsed in so much that a lot of people who were well to do before are struggling to make ends meet right now. There are a lot of people I know, a lot of families, women-led families. I've already covered this issue of women and families that I personally know who have are, who are forced to eat bread and tea for most of their meals because they have no food, they have no money to buy food. So, if their conditions are the same, you can only imagine what the situation is in the IDP camps, where already the resources were, you know, very, very less. And since the you know, since the whole aid economy has collapsed, those resources have furthered dwindled. There are some really excellent organisations trying to, you know, meet these challenges. There are some international organisations trying to, you know, compensate like, you know, UN and World Bank are trying to re-engage with the Afghan economy. So, there has been some effort. In fact, the UN's most recent call for funding for Afghanistan was the largest ever in history. So, it basically illustrates the extent of the humanitarian crisis that the country is right now facing. Starvation is widespread, there's famine. And, of course, you know, environmental factors have only, you know, aggravated the situation further. They had really good snowfall, which was really good. But, you know, a surprisingly good snowfall when droughts had been predicted last winter, which is really good, because that's a little bit of relief. But then now they're experiencing a large-scale heatwave, some of which has led to forest fire, which the Taliban don't have the capacity to put out, because, you know, they're not a government. So, they don't have, you know, disaster management skills, they don't have equipment. So, the, the forest fire that could have been, you know, easily, well not easily could have been curbed in prior to August 15 waged for almost two weeks. So, it's basically, you know, it's a porridge of human disasters that one after the other, which is happening, you know, which is just happening on consequently, and worst-affected among those are women. So, women are, and women-led households and, you know, families with, with large number of women-in-charge are the ones who are suffering the most. And they are being disempowered simultaneously, so they are being kicked out of school, they're being kicked out of private sector, being kept out of, you know, public social sector, all their movements are restricted. All of this is, you know, all of this contributes to decision-making that furthers practices of child marriage that further, you know, push the country back by decades.

Reetika Revathy Subramanian: Yeah, and you know, this takes me to the main focus of this podcast today. In your story published in November last year, you wrote about how climate change has been driving an uptick in child marriages in the IDP camps. Could you tell us more on how you went about reporting the story, and what did you see and what did you hear?

Ruchi Kumar: Right. So, it's very hard to collect data in Afghanistan. Again, a marriage is a very private thing. So, and not all Afghans register marriages, not all Afghans even have the right documents, you know, citizenship documents. So, registration of marriage, especially is a very private affair and families wouldn’t do it, like you know, so it's very hard to collect data on, on how many child marriages take place in a year. It's very hard to know how many marriages take place in a year. But it's even harder to know how many child marriages take place in a year. But it is safe to say, based on anecdotal evidence, that the number is very high.

So, when we started working on the story on child marriages, particularly to, you know, looking at it from the lens of, you know, climate change and natural disasters, we had to sift through a lot of data, a lot of cases, because a lot of different atrocities against young girls was taking place. We came across shockingly high number of cases, we went into one of the communities. And it seemed like everybody had a daughter that had been either already married or had been promised into marriage, who was under the age of 10. The more we talked to the community, the more they'll be like, oh, yeah, you know, just one street over like, there's another family living there. There's another family, when you talk to the village elders, or the tribal elders, they also reported that was happening very, you know, at a very rapid pace than they had ever seen before, especially in the north, and we only covered the northern communities. So, we never got the opportunity to actually talk to the south, the southern communities, where also it is believed to be rampant.

Reetika Revathy Subramanian: Right, and then, what are the exchanges involved? Is there a financial incentive?

Ruchi Kumar: So, the thing is, in Afghanistan, unlike in India, the dowry it works the other way around. So, the parents of the bride get money, get a dowry from the parents of the groom. And that, you know, when a family is in abject poverty, that is a very strong incentive for them to marry their daughters younger and younger. And we did a couple of stories back then, boys were also sold but into labour. So, they were sold to, you know, contractors to be used as labourers in coal mines and, you know, in field, etcetera. There was little in terms of regret, or in terms of, I mean, yes, they did disapprove of it. I wouldn't say that they didn't they, they didn't know it was wrong. Except it seemed like an acceptable solution to their problems. But in the end, you know, survival does trump other moral obligations or moral principles and things like that.

Reetika Revathy Subramanian: So, when they term it an ‘acceptable solution to their problems’, almost as though it is a ‘marriage of survival’, are there any particular type of families who are more vulnerable or, say, more desperate to push their young daughters into a marriage?

Ruchi Kumar: So, Afghanistan has seen 40 years of war, in which men have been most active participants of the war. As a result, there are higher casualties of men. So, a lot of the families were women-led, women dependent. And in the larger context, the cultural context, such families were already disempowered because the culture did not allow full participation even during the Republic times. Because the existing culture did not allow full participation of women into the society. Yes, there was a lot of progress made. But still, women were very, you know, women's presence within public roles, within a private sector within, you know, in general, in public was very limited to certain roles and certain positions, which actually meant that women-led households or households with many, many women who are struggling financially to be able to survive. So, now, with the Taliban takeover, it's become even harder for women-led households or households with the majority of you know, women in charge to survive, and these households are the most vulnerable to giving in to the practice of child marriage. Because the other thing is that there's always a pressure, you know, you know, that the concept of honour is so overplayed in in our region. To an extent that having a lot of young girls unmarried in your house is considered, you know, could be considered dishonourable, because they could be dishonoured. So, it is very this kind of pressure on an inability to, you know, provide for these young women in their house, plus the pressure, the societal pressure of having young girls in the house, especially now with the Taliban who do actually go ahead, and, you know, there have been many cases that I've documented where young girls were forcibly married to, you know, Taliban fighters. When things like that happen, the families are more willing to give in to the pressure and actually marry them off, based on their own, you know, or marry them off to a family of their own choice, which is more preferable than having, you know, Taliban forcibly marry your daughter. So, these families are vulnerable families with you know, women-led households who have too many mouths to feed. By sending girls away into another family not only does that mean that, you know, they are also now the problem of the other family, the, the, you know, the honour of the family, but also, in exchange, they will bring a certain amount of money that can help them sustain for a little while longer. The household where the men are no longer able to take care or are deceased, usually a close male relative takes charge of the family. And in that case, it becomes really hard for him to, because he has his own family, and then has to look after either his sister-in-law or sister or, you know, a cousin, who, you know, so in that case, the male members involved suggest and actually go forward and arrange these marriages. In IDP camps, it's done to, you know, it's done through tribal connections. So, you know, the tribal leader sort of overlooks the families under him, like, he has the responsibility. Not the financial, not the moral, but more like he has a responsibility of care of the families under him to see that they are okay. Sometimes, yeah, there are people who are exploitative, and we did see one such case of a person from a whole different province, you know, he actually came scouting for the proposal for his son, who was also very young. And that's how he found the girl that we eventually did interview, who was only eight years old. So, that also happens. But that's rare, it's usually done, you know, by a male family relative. And in the absence of whom, by a tribal elder.

Reetika Revathy Subramanian: So, then, under such circumstances, have you noticed any changes in the way the toyna or the bride price is getting fixed. I mean, are families of the young brides settling for lesser amounts than usual, say, due to increased drought and increased desperation?

Ruchi Kumar: We didn't notice, I mean, it's not something we actively, like, it's not data that we actively sought. But we did observe that it really depends on again, the region, the state and the condition of how desperate the family is, you know, the girl's family, how, which part of the country is this practice being done and, and, of course, the capacity of the person, you know, who's also willing to pay this toyna or the bride price. In Herat camps, for instance, the proposal came from outside, came from a well-to-do businessman who was in agriculture business. So, he paid a very high amount for the little girl, for the eight-year-old girl, but the same, a couple of years later, when we were in the camp now in August, when we were in, in the IDP camp in Mazar, the arrangement was with another family who was also in the IDP camp, they were just slightly better off. So, obviously, the amount was significantly less, and the promise was to be paid, that it would be paid over a period of time, you know, so they will pay and they will pay in terms of buying groceries, buying essentials, buying clothes, buying, you know, they just had to eat. So, buying them, like an animal for the, for the Eid. In recent times, the mother of the girls, she would keep a notebook of, you know, noting of how much they had paid, and they had paid, like back then, they had paid one lakh Afghani, and they had promised her six lakh Afghani. And similarly, you know, if it was like that, and she wasn't sure she was she was also afraid, and they were sitting in the room with us like the other, you know, and she was like, I'm not sure they will pay the whole amount, like, you know, because she, she's like, they know, we're desperate. So, they might, you know, pay us half. And so, it's I feel like the amount is set, and usually is confirmed by again, a tribal elder or some religious leader or someone who can confirm that, you know, this is who can hold the family accountable for the payment of that amount. But again, it's fluid and how it's paid is also it's, I'm sure it's pre-decided, but it's also flexible. You can either pay it all in cash, like in the case that we observed in Herat, or, you know, you could pay in terms, you know, in terms in kind like, or just pay for the expenses of the girls have. In Mazar, the girl wanted to study. And the family also offered to pay for her school fees. But there were no schools in the IDP camp and I'm sure now there is no other option. There were schools outside the IDP camps, but I'm sure they are not operating either. So basically, she has no other option.

Reetika Revathy Subramanian: Right, the next question that I had was to do with the role of boys or men in these arrangements, in such early marriages, which hasn’t been studied or documented as much. Across South Asia, if we were to look at only the climate hotspots, say, in Nepal or Bangladesh, the grooms in question are not much older than their brides, the age difference is shrinking. Which wasn’t the case earlier when we heard of young brides getting married to men who were twice or thrice their age. Could you tell us a bit more on the bridegrooms in the stories that you’ve been reporting on from the IDP camps in Afghanistan? What are their particular compulsions?

Ruchi Kumar: So, in the Afghan context, though, from my observation, again, I may be wrong here, this is from my observation is that an Afghan boy seeks a bride only when he is capable of being able to financially take responsibility of the wedding and of paying the bride price, which basically means a lot of Afghan men, and that happens a lot, because, you know, this is how patriarchy works against the men. There are a lot of men who are forced to take loans and that go into thousands and thousands of dollars, to be able to have to, not just be able to pay the bride price, but to have a wedding, you know, because it's a matter of honour to have a grand wedding, to be able to pay for things and expenses of the bride's family because again, that's, that's, again, a matter of, you know, honour and things like that. So, usually, when an Afghan boy seeks out a girl in marriage, it's when he is capable of paying that he's financially capable of being able to do that. Which is why I don't, again, my observation could I could be totally wrong, but I don't see a lot of boys getting married younger, like they wait till they're financially able to, at least have a job to pay for it, or at least have a job so that they can take a loan. A lot of them end up in debt just because of getting married, which also, by the way, translates into violence against the woman later, if the, if the family has taken debt to be able to buy the girl in marriage, then they expect a lot from her. And if she's not able to, you know, live up to the expectations, not birthing children or not, you know, or if she's costing them, then usually she's at the, you know, there’s a lot of violence against her for not, for not being worth the price and things like that, which again, it's not, you know, it's not great. But in the cases where I documented, the boy was, one of them was 24, and the other was 21. While the girl was eight and nine, In polygamy marriages, of course, it's, uh, you know, the, the boy, the man is significantly older because he's either had multiple wives or at least had one other wife. But in case of, in case of Afghanistan, and, and based on what I've observed, I noticed the boys are usually at least in their 20s before they go seeking a bride.

Reetika Revathy Subramanian: Right, and that brings me to a very important question which is also being tabled and discussed by child rights activists and practitioners globally: who is a ‘child’? On the one hand, the Afghan Civil Law has set the minimum age for marriage at 16 for girls and at 18 for boys, which is also lower than the minimum age for marriage in many countries globally. And you have met families where girls as young as eight or ten have been given up in marriage. I wanted to know, within these IDP camps, particularly within these marriages of survival, how do local communities understand childhood, and how different are the local perceptions from that of the laws of the land?

Ruchi Kumar: Yeah, the only I would say very comprehensive study on child marriage in Afghanistan that was done was in 2018 or 19 it was released. And that study was basically, there was a whole section on perceptions towards child marriage, and you know, basically who is considered a child. And that a lot of the women who, I'm guessing, who have actually had lived experiences about getting married early, could sympathise, could empathise with the younger girls getting married and considered it wrong. But a lot of the men of the families didn’t see it as such, like they did not see, you know, someone getting married at 14 and 15 as young. So, a lot of the perceptions really depended on, you know, how they perceived the child, if they perceived the girl to be a child. In my personal opinion, of course, delivery and all should be a factor, I feel science should be a very strong factor, because for a girl to get married, you know, at a younger age means that she will have to give birth in these communities it is it is it is necessary for the girl to reproduce, you know, within the year of being married. So, what kind of, of how the childbirth can, the kind of pressure can inflict on her body, I feel like that has to be strongly considered on when discussing something like this. So, a lot of the girls who are getting married were losing their babies, their first babies. And it was very common for, you know, younger girls to experience miscarriages in the first few years of their marriage. And it was, it was actually during another story that we were doing, when we were looking at how increasingly, you know, Afghan women were going back to home birth like they were because of the COVID scare, fear and the lack of resources. In Kabul hospitals, even in the urban areas where women had started giving birth in the hospital, they were reverting to traditional methods and going back home, and sometimes, you know, relying on untrained midwives to give birth, which is not good. And why we're looking that we were in the maternity ward of one of the very prominent hospitals in Kabul. And there were quite a few young girls like 15-year-old, 16-year-old, who were there who had suffered miscarriages. There were others who had given birth, but the child was weak, and the woman herself was very weak. And while talking to their doctors, this is one of the things that they said it's because these girls are getting married early, and because of that their bodies are not yet ready for childbirth medically. In medical terms, it's very, like child marriage is basically harmful, it's harmful to the you know, to the mother. So, it’s harmful to the child, it's also harmful to the mother where the you know, and in Afghanistan in the region, the maternal mortality rate is one of the highest. And I'm not, I mean, I'm not saying I'm not linking the two, that's the reason it's highest number of reasons, I'm not going to go and say that it's okay, because they're getting married young. So, you know, but one of the reasons I do see it as is that, you know, the younger girls are being married and younger, you know, they are forced to give birth younger, at a younger age, when their bodies are still not ready. They're not strong, they don't have the kind of resources, they don't have the kind of, you know, access to the kind of, you know, technology and medical healthcare. And yes, that is contributing to their, you know, to the increasing maternal mortality rate.

Reetika Revathy Subramanian: Yeah, this is of course really distressing to say the least, and like you clearly point out, early marriages and forced marriages of course have very far-reaching consequences. This brings me to the question on the role of the state. What role does the law, or can the law play in these contexts or circumstances?

Ruchi Kumar: The state's role was still very limited, because in Afghanistan, the state does not play an active role, or at least, is not considered. Law, as such, cannot intervene in what is considered to be private. Marriage is considered to be a very private affair, very family- related affair. So, there are laws against child marriage, but you know, it was rarely implemented. Also, there was no mechanism. So, if a child is getting married, how would you know, who is eligible to report on it, who can report that, you know, a young girl…it has to, it can't be an outsider, because again, you know, outsiders cannot have that kind of access within family units, which are very, very close knit. If it's one of the family members, and there's a lot of, you know, there's a lot of emphasis on, on proving and also on settlement, by the way. So, you know, I mean, they avoid, like inter-family conflict. Also, states don't have that kind of jurisdiction, again, to intervene within the family conflict. So then, you know, usually the tribal leaders or religious scholars, they play a role. And in all of that, the actual law gets lost, like, you know, the actual protection of the child, the goal of protecting the child is, you know, somewhere obscure. And, but, but despite that, there was a lot of, you know, despite how inefficient the law was, there has been a lot of effort in creating awareness, general awareness against child marriage, that how bad it is, and there have been campaigns to allow women to stay in school longer to, you know, in favour of women staying in school longer. All of it has now been halted like it's all just, you know, I don't know if you know if it's right to say that it's been paused. But I would like to say that it's been paused, because I'm really hoping that whatever this is going on right now with the Taliban does not last long. And that, you know, Afghans can pick up where they left off, and, you know, just revive everything that they were doing, because there was a lot of activisms from a lot of different sectors against issues like child marriage, among many other issues.

Reetika Revathy Subramanian: This brings me to the final question on this podcast. Early on in our conversation, you described the situation in Afghanistan as being a porridge of disasters—there’s conflict, insecurity, instability, and an alarming rate of violence. In the midst of all this, what place does activism against child marriage or conversations on climate action really hold today and in the immediate future in Afghanistan?

Ruchi Kumar: So, women have done a lot of work in changing Afghanistan, in changing perspectives, changing laws, changing policies, in pushing their way through, through a patriarchal society to make their presence felt in, in various sectors, demanding for you know, more space and you know, getting more space in a lot of the places because there are a lot of child marriage campaigns that they talk about. A lot of them are organically powered, and they are powered by women, you know, who are leading these. I know, a lot of the women in Afghanistan are facing a lot of other issues. You know, issues like child marriages have, you know, have to have I wouldn't say have taken a backseat, but they are not getting as much attention right now in the country because of everything else that's going on and everything else that's affecting women. Women are being pushed out their work, pushed out of their you know, careers, pushed out of education and schools. You know, secondary schools in Afghanistan for girls are still shut, which basically means that girls can study primary, they're going to university, but secondary is shut. This basically means that in a few years, there will be no girls graduating out of the secondary school which means there will be no one going to college. So, there's a lot of other issues that they're focusing on. So, you know, I completely understand why civil society movements in Afghanistan that were very active previously are no longer able to campaign for issues like issues like climate change or issues like you know, child marriage.

Reetika Revathy Subramanian: Right, on that note, thank you very much Ruchi for joining us today, for sharing your insights and your field experiences. Of course, there’s a lot to reflect on and many more questions to pose, particularly to the various stakeholders involved. But in the meanwhile, here’s more power to you, to your journalism, and to the local communities in Afghanistan continuing to fight the big fight on the ground. Thank you very much once again.

The Climate Brides podcast is supported by the University of Cambridge Public Engagement Starter Fund 2021. If you want to learn more about today’s topic, head over to our website, where we will have full transcripts of the episode, a specially curated reading list, climate models and infographics. Until then, subscribe now wherever you get your podcasts. Follow the Climate Brides page on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook to stay tuned, and stay updated.

Episode Credits:

Writer and Host: Reetika Revathy Subramanian

Music and Sound production: Siddharth Nagarajan

Illustration: Maitri Dore

bottom of page