Jamila*, a widow living in Herat, lost her husband in a suicide attack about eight years ago. She has an 18-year-old daughter who is blind and a 20-year-old son who lost both legs in a mine blast.
Jamila used to be a housemaid and bake bread for people in their homes. With this income she was able to feed her daughter and son, according to research carried out by Ahmad*, a former lecturer at the University of Herat and shared with me.
Because of the current situation, Jamila has lost her clients and is now struggling to cope. She could not pay her rent and the landlord asked her to leave her home. She now lives in a small room that a kind family gave her in their yard. She has no source of income.
Previously about 10% of educated women in Afghanistan worked in national or international organizations to support their children. If less educated, they had a range of formal and informal jobs including working as housemaids, baking bread, washing clothes, cleaning bathrooms and babysitting, and in rural communities rearing small livestock and growing wheat, maize and vegetables.
Jamila said that previously under the former government, her family received a monthly salary from the state ministry of martyrs and disabled affairs, which pays families of military veterans or those killed in the fighting, and that gave them enough money for bread.
Single women and widows have practically no way of earning money. On-the-ground reports reveal that many households are supported by women as male members of their families were either killed or injured in the ongoing conflict.
It is not just food, but also shelter, water, fuel and warmth that contribute to survival, especially in bitterly cold temperatures. Ahmad, the former lecturer in Afghanistan, said:
Overall, the dire situation in Afghanistan has increased the incidence of extreme hunger and malnutrition for both men and women, but women without husbands are being pushed into even more extreme poverty.
The January 2023 high-level UN delegation led by Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed called on the Taliban authorities to reverse the various decrees limiting women’s and girl’s rights for the sake of peace and sustainable development. While the backlash against women’s rights needs to be urgently addressed, the crisis of food and nutrition security facing single women, widows and separated women, is not being recognized by many outside the country.
As a former employee of the Afghanistan Central Statistical Organisation, responsible for population data collection in four districts of Bamiyan province, told us: “It is very difficult to collect accurate population data.” She said that previous data concerning women-headed households was now likely to be invalid.
While women’s rights are under attack in Afghanistan, the full effect of the ban on women’s work and mobility on single women, widows and separated women, is yet to be fully recognized. While appeals for help to the United Nations by teachers, professionals and civil society activists are rising by the day, negotiations are not progressing, and the delivery of humanitarian assistance is becoming increasingly challenging.
It’s difficult to estimate how long local communities, themselves struggling to survive, can keep women-led households and their families alive.
**All names in this article have been changed for security reasons