Afghanistan is one of the world’s most prolific producers of orphans and widows. The number of widows in Afghanistan is estimated to be from 600,000 to two million (2M), one of the highest in the world. Three decades of war in Afghanistan have created a large crowd of widows. Most of these widows in Afghanistan lost their husbands as a result of war and conflicts. According to the statistics of Afghanistan’s Ministry of Social Affairs, Labor, Martyrs and Disabled, there are 70,000 widows who are breadwinners for their families. On average, a typical widow in Afghanistan is around 35 years old. It is argued that 94 percent of widows are illiterate, and an estimated 90 percent have 3 to 8 off springs. The average period within which a woman remains a widow in Afghanistan is 10 years. Given the lack of employable skills, dire economic options, poor social support, stigmatization, and the extremely low status of women in society, Afghan widows and their families wallow in extreme deprivation and are among the most vulnerable citizens of the country. Studies reveal that Afghan widows are at least five times more prone to oppression, malnutrition, and violence.
Widowhood has a brutal and irrevocable impact on a widow’s children, especially the girl child. Poverty may force widows to withdraw their children from school, exposing them to exploitation in child labor, prostitution, early forced child marriage, trafficking, and sale. Most of the widows in Afghanistan are illiterate. They are ill-equipped for gainful employment and remain for years without access to adequate food and shelter. Afghan widows and their children often suffer ill health and malnutrition, lacking the means to obtain appropriate health care or other forms of support.
Widows and Remarriage
In Afghanistan, the wife is considered to be the property of her husband’s family thus a widow may be forced into levirate marriage, a practice whereby she is required to marry a close male relative of her late husband. In May 2018, an article published in New York Times reported that Khadija, an Afghan widow in Helmand province who is 18 years old, married three times with three brothers. One of the three brothers was a Taliban warrior killed in the US Marine Corps. Another was a police officer who was killed in a war with the Taliban. The third one is a translator. And now, the Taliban are looking for him. Khadija, probably, was a bit lucky that she remarried her husband’s brother who supervises her children. There are myriad of women who lost their husbands in the conflicts of Afghanistan, are without a supervisor.
Sometimes, if the widows’ husband’s families don’t have any son, the widow is nevertheless barred from marrying outside the husband’s home. And worse than that, sometimes, it is culturally unacceptable for a man to marry a widow or for a widow to remarry. Likewise, if widowed women have children, for whatever reason, who are married again, also have their own problems. In many cases, men who intend to marry widows do not accept the offspring of a widowed woman, or if they accept, they don’t fulfill their promise after marriage and force the woman to abandon her children.
The Challenges Awaiting Widows
Widowed women are among the most vulnerable groups in Afghanistan. Sometimes they are labeled as bad guys because they often do not have the guards to protect them. They are exposed to violence. According to the United Nations report 2014, more than a quarter of Afghanistan’s widowed women interviewed after the deaths of their husbands have experienced violence, mostly committed by their husbands’ affiliates because they are considered as the burden of the family.
Psychological problems: the difficult life of a wife after her husband’s death causes widows to face many mental problems in Afghanistan. Livelihood pressures, breeding children, re-marriage, family pressure, and sexual abuse sometimes lead widows to commit suicide. According to Afghanistan’s Human Rights Commission studies, 32 percent of widows are afflicted with mental disorders and 22 percent have acute physical problems.
Widows as mendicants: in Afghanistan, there are a number of widowed women who have become street beggars and their ragamuffin children are accompanying them. For example, on the streets of Kabul, there are many widows who wear blue burqa not to be identified pleading the passersby to give them money.
Violence against widows: violence is a problem that widowed women have always faced. Violence, which is essentially imposed on women by men, can have many different causes. Important factors that promote violence against women in families are illiteracy and lack of awareness of women about their legal and religious rights, tolerance of violence by women, low awareness of the society about women’s rights and the ruling culture that allows violence on women by the community. Widows in comparison to non-widowed women experience more violence in homes and communities.
Socio-cultural factors: Afghanistan is a highly patriarchal society whose norms, beliefs, practices, and traditions are shaped by extremist values of fundamentalists which regard women as less than a human being. Afghan women are generally viewed as ‘un-equals’ whose existence is circumscribed by their relationships with men and have no social identity of their own.
Before marriage, they are daughters to their fathers; and once married, they assume the identity of a wife to their husband. When a husband dies, the wife’s life suffers a major de-stabilizing shock as it marks the sudden loss of her social identity, the source of protection and support.
Afghan windows are either taken back by their original family or the relatives of their husband. Otherwise, they wallow in wretchedness as street beggars. For many widows, death is a sweeter option. Among the major factors that contribute to the disadvantage of Afghan widows, negative socio-cultural factors are the most pernicious, most recalcitrant, and most difficult to address. As long as society is dominated by men with values that are antithetical to democracy, human rights and gender equality, Afghan widows’ empowerment would remain arduous and elusive.
Lack of rule of law: Article 53 of Afghanistan’s Constitutional Law, which articulates a guarantee that the rights and privileges, as well as assistance to women without caretakers and needy orphans, will be ensured. But Afghanistan does not have a clear policy on widows. The National Action Plan for the Women of Afghanistan (NAPWA) recognizes the disadvantage faced by widows and the Afghanistan National Development Strategy explicitly acknowledges that widows are among the most vulnerable people in the country. Yet, all these policy instruments remain unelaborated and unimplemented. Many of the interventions for widows are done by non-government organizations and international agencies. Due to the enormity of constraints faced by programming in the country, many of the interventions for widows were palliative, un-sustained, and detached from overall priorities of the government.
To eliminate negative attitudes towards widowed women, the government of Afghanistan and other national and international related organizations should launch awareness campaigns. Media, audio and video presses and other social informant channels can help the governments and related organizations in this regard. Because unless widows know their rights, their problems cannot be addressed. First, these awareness campaigns should focus on changing the social and cultural misconceptions about the widows’ fate in the society. Second, the government and other national and international organizations should provide a specific strategy to support widows via creating programs for teaching employment skills to give them economic independence and self-sufficiency. Third, since a large proportion of widows are illiterate, the government should provide literacy courses for them so that can obtain at least the basic education (literacy and numeracy) to find jobs for themselves. And last but not the least, the government should prepare a clear policy about the widows in order that they should not face any legal problems when referring to governmental offices for solving their problems.