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Afghanistan, Heroin, and Women

As part of Indiana University’s “Human Trafficking Awareness Week”, Ms. Fariba Nawa talked to the IU community about “Afghanistan, Heroin, and Women”.  Fariba Nawa is an Afghan-American freelance reporter and author who lived and reported from Afghanistan from 2002 and 2007.  In 2011 her book Opium Nation: Child Brides, Drug Lords and One Woman’s Journey Through Afghanistan was published by HarperCollins about her experiences.

Fariba Nawa was born in Herat, Afghanistan and fled as a refugee with her family during the 1980s Soviet war in Afghanistan.  Her subsequent experience growing up in the U.S. and studying for her Master’s degree in Journalism just after 9/11 showed her the importance of representing the ethnic and cultural diversity of Afghanistan to the Western world.  A key point of her work is that the opium trade is an international problem, not an Afghan problem, because it is driven by international demand and international lawlessness.   Two thirds of opium is turned into heroin in a 65 billion dollar business, of which about 4 billion is estimated to stay in Afghanistan.  Though it is difficult to conduct nationwide surveys, U.N. estimates place the role of the opium trade in the GDP from 20% or even possibly as much as 50%.   It is an illegal business largely run by international mafias of countries such as Pakistan, Russia, Turkey, Albania, and Nigeria.

Women are involved in all levels of the opium trade, not as merely passive victims as they are sometimes portrayed.  Women are, however, differentially impacted by this trade.  Many women are widowed, with husbands failing to return home from border crossings and shot in the violence that accompanies the large-scale militarized global trade in opium and heroin.  Young girls are often sold as “opium brides” to pay off debts incurred in the high-risk business.  To pay off debts, cash, drugs, carpets, gold, or children are acceptable forms of payment.  Some ‘opium brides’ chose to set themselves on fire instead as a form of protest, but if young girls refuse to go their families may be killed.  NGOs are unable to intervene to help these opium brides, saying that even if they could save the growing number of young women that they would be unable to protect the families from retaliation.  Especially on the northern border of Afghanistan, women are also powerful smugglers in their own right.  There is also an elite female anti-narcotics squad in Afghanistan, again showing how women are involved in all levels (and all sides) of the drug trade.

The NATO initiative against the opium trade by burning the poppy fields has unfortunately increased the number of opium brides because families have no alternative way to repay debts.  The opium trade is not a problem that can be solved in Afghanistan by eradicating Afghan poppy fields, but it is an international issue that is enabled by international demand and international lawlessness.  Countries like Netherlands and Portugal that have decriminalized addiction and treat it through the healthcare system are in a much better position and should be discussed more by international policy-makers.  For Afghanistan, there needs to be more support for legal trade to help limit the drug trade without crippling their GDP.  There has been some success with producing saffron, expensive grapes, cumin, and Bulgarian rose extract oils, but those forms of legal trade require legal infrastructure to be feasible.  This includes such aspects as roads, security, and even marketing.  With increased logistical support for legal trade, more Afghans will be able to turn to legal crops. 

Listen to the podcast here

This event was sponsored by the Asian Culture Center, Center for the Study of Global Change, Department of International Studies, The Horizon of Knowledge Lecture Series, and the School of Journalism.