Afghan widows struggle to survive after decades of conflict

Afghan War WidowsKABUL—In the spring of 2013, Fereshta’s husband enlisted in the Afghan army. Three months into his deployment, he was killed.“My youngest daughter was 40 days old,” recalled Fereshta, a mother of five who, like many Afghans, goes by only one name.

By Margherita Stancati | Photographs By Paula Bronstein for The Wall Street Journal

After her husband’s death, she received a pension of 7,500 afghanis ($120) a month. But a year later that money stopped, she said—the government isn’t sure why—forcing her to ask for her brothers’ help to feed her children.

FERESHTA

Hamid, in 2014, holds a photo of his father, who was killed during his service in the Afghan army, leaving Fereshta, at rear, widowed with five children.

Three decades of conflict in Afghanistan have produced a vast population of war widows. Last year was the deadliest for Afghans since the U.S. invasion in 2001, with 2,690 civilian men and around 5,400 troops killed.This year has been no less violent, with hundreds killed or injured in fighting in the northern province of Kunduz.

BN-KK496_0915af_P_20150921183833Many widows lack the support of relatives whose lives too have been upended by the country’s continuous violence and poverty. Few have any job prospects where women rarely work outside the home. And those who should qualify for government support often aren’t aware that they are entitled to it.

The Afghan Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs, Martyred and Disabled says it pays benefits to the roughly 80,000 war widows who have registered to receive them. Wives of fallen soldiers, policemen or other government employees are entitled to a regular stipend equal to their spouses’ salaries, while widows of civilians killed in attacks are permitted 5,000 afghanis a month.

BIBI AYESHA, BIBI NAIZ, NOOR JAN

Bibi Ayesha, top left, begged for money after her husband was killed by the Taliban in the 1990s. She now relies on her son for support. Bibi Naiz, top right, who is blind in one eye, lost seven members of her family, including her husband, daughter and two sons, during an airstrike. At bottom, Noor Jan, a widowed mother of three, lives alone in a small home where she does embroidery work to earn a modest living. Her husband died during a suicide attack in Kabul.

But the number receiving benefits is far below the actual number of those whose husbands died due to war, and the level of benefits for those who do receive them sometimes falls short of their entitlement.

A U.N. report issued in February said that, among those surveyed, most widows of civilians killed in war received a small, one-off payment, instead of the regular stipend. “Most women interviewed did not know how to access available compensation mechanisms…noting they believed compensation payments were available only to the well-connected elite,” the report also said.

A spokesman for the labor ministry, Ali Eftikhari, who said he wasn’t familiar with Fereshta’s case, said all war widows are entitled to assistance, and benefits shouldn’t be cut off, adding, “We don’t have exact number of widows in Afghanistan because we don’t have data, and many widows are not registered with our ministry.”
He said widows are sometimes victims of a common ruse in which middlemen sell fake registration cards and keep the money for themselves. The Afghan government is cracking down on such scams, he said.

Widows are among Afghanistan’s most vulnerable groups. They sometimes are stigmatized as morally loose because they frequently don’t have male guardians to protect them. They are also more visible in public, since when they work it is often outside the home.

And they are susceptible to violence. According to the U.N. report in February, more than one in four Afghan widows who were interviewed experienced violence after their husbands’ deaths, mostly inflicted by their in-laws, who saw them as a burden.

GULSHAN, ASEFA, KHADIJAH, SAHAR, FERESHTA

Top photo: Gulshan cleans houses to support her six children. Like many widows, she is uneducated and illiterate. Middle photos, clockwise from top left: Asefa, whose husband was killed in an ethnic conflict, now lives with her six children in a tent, where they weave carpets to make money. Khadijah lost her husband three years ago during a battle between the Hazara and the nomadic Kuchi tribes. She lives on a hill in a one-room house without furniture or running water. Sahar is supported by her husband’s family. Gulshan holds her youngest daughter. Bottom photo: Fereshta, in 2014.

“Some families think widows belong to them. They treat them like property,” said Malalai Shinwari, a former lawmaker and women’s rights activist.

The country’s constant warfare has left some women widowed twice. In 1992, a stray rocket struck Zakira’s home in Kabul, killing her husband. Zakira and her three children had no one to turn to—most of her relatives had either died or fled Afghanistan. But she was luckier than most.

Three years later, she met Mohammad Ali. “He asked to marry me and said he would take care of my children,” recalled Zakira, who had four more children with Mr. Ali, a driver for an Afghan telecom company. “We were poor but happy,” she said.
SHAKHAN

Shakhan married at 15, without an education. Her husband was a commander in the Afghan National Army; photo from 2014.

On the evening of Jan. 17, 2014, he was waiting in a car parked outside a Lebanese restaurant in central Kabul when a Taliban suicide bomber blew himself up. He was one of the 21 victims of that attack, which targeted the restaurant’s foreign guests but also killed many Afghans.

Zakira now lives independently with her youngest children, earning a modest wage as a kindergarten teacher and receiving an $80-a-month stipend from the government. It is enough to pay the rent, but not the kind of life she hoped to have with Mr. Ali.

“Now that he is dead, I don’t know what will happen to us,” she said, her eyes filling with tears. “I don’t see a good future for us.”

For the cash-strapped Afghan government, which is focused on fighting the insurgency, overhauling welfare services isn’t an immediate priority. The ministry says it concentrates on helping those widows whose families don’t look after them. The U.N. mission in Afghanistan has urged it to do more.

“For widows in Afghanistan, the consequences of loss extend beyond grief,” said Danielle Bell, who heads the human rights unit of the U.N. mission here. “These women must be empowered to support and protect themselves and their children: to earn a living, educate their children and enjoy a decent life.”
FERESHTA

Fereshta lives on a hill in eastern Kabul. After her husband’s death, she received a pension of $120 a month. A year later, the money stopped.

The vast majority of civilians killed in the current war were victims of firefights or bombs planted by the Taliban. However, airstrikes by the U.S. military have also contributed to the fatalities. Most recently, the U.S. bombing of a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz city left 30 dead. The commander of U.S. and allied troops in Afghanistan said the air assault was a mistake.

The U.S. military says it supports with cash payments civilians killed or hurt as a result of operations. The U.S. Agency for International Development funds programs that provide humanitarian assistance to war victims in partnership with the Afghan government and nongovernmental groups.

In the Afghan capital, some widows have become street beggars, waiting in blue burqas for passersby to drop change into their hands—or the rag-clad children who accompany them.

When Mariam became a widow, she pulled two of her sons out of school and sent them to work on the streets of Kabul, peddling chewing gum. Her husband, a pushcart vendor, was killed in December 2011 in a powerful blast that targeted Shiite worshipers who had gathered to celebrate the holy day of Ashura in Kabul.
MAHTA, SIMA

Mahta, top, begs for money in downtown Kabul. She is not handicapped, she says, but feels she must act as such to survive as a beggar in a city that has many like her. Sima, bottom, sits outside a bread shop in Kabul, waiting for handouts. Her husband died as a solider with the Afghan National Army.

“I wasn’t happy in my marriage—I wasn’t happy for a single day,” said Mariam, who was herself injured in that attack. But after her husband’s death “my life went from bad to worse.” She could no longer afford to pay the rent and had to move to a makeshift tent. Mariam said she wasn’t receiving government support and wasn’t aware it existed.

Fereshta lives on a hill in eastern Kabul that is home to a unique community. Over the past two decades, widows have converged there, finding strength in each other’s company. Bibi Ayesha is among its oldest residents. Her husband belonged to a fiercely anti-Taliban community and was shot dead by a Taliban patrol party in the late 1990s.

After his death, Bibi Ayesha began to work—first as a cleaner and then in a textile factory—but she struggled to make enough money to rent a house big enough for her and her five children. A decade ago, she decided to build a house on an unclaimed patch of land, one mud brick at a time.

More squatters followed. “I told women who didn’t have a house: ‘Come here and build one yourself. God will help you; you don’t need other people’s help,’”said Bibi Ayesha, sitting in the house she built.

By Margherita Stancati | Photographs By Paula Bronstein for The Wall Street Journal

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