AFGHANISTAN: Bleak prospects for country’s
estimated 1.5 million widows
KABUL, 30 January 2008 (IRIN) - Knocking on the
windows of cars stuck in traffic on Shar-e-Naw Street
in Kabul, Zulaikha and her children beg for money to
keep warm and feed themselves. Their daily routine
starts at about 7am and ends at 6pm every day.
“Often we collect 100-150 Afghanis [US$ 2-3] a
day,” she said, adding that it was barely enough for
bread and tea.
Zulaikha lost her husband, Jamaluddin, in factional
fighting between former Taliban and Northern Alliance
forces in the northern outskirts of Kabul in 1999. She
has three children - an 11-year-old son and two
daughters aged eight and nine.
Over the past three years she has been living in a
shack outside Kabul, for which she pays a monthly rent
“We have nobody to help us,” the widow said.
Afghanistan has one of the highest numbers of
widows (proportionate to the total population) in the
world, owing to the armed conflicts that have
bedevilled the country for over two decades.
There are over 1.5 million widows out of an
estimated 26.6 million people in Afghanistan,
according to Beyond 9/11, a US-based nonprofit group
that provides direct financial support to Afghan
widows and their children. Some 50,000-70,000 widows
live in Kabul alone, it says.
The government of Afghanistan does not have an
accurate figure for the number of widows in the
country, but some officials say there are more than
Most widows illiterate
“The average age of an Afghan widow is just 35
years, and 94 percent of them are unable to read and
write,” Deborah Zalesne, a board member of the Beyond
9/11 and a law professor at the City University of New
York, told IRIN.
“About 90 percent of Afghan widows have children,
and the average widow has more than four,” Zalesne
To survive many Afghan widows weave carpets, do
tailoring, beg or even engage in prostitution.
In urban areas where women have better access to
employment and other services than in conservative
rural areas, an average working widow earns about $16
a month, experts estimate.
Shelter, food, earning a living and social
protection are among the most pressing issues for
widows, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs (MoWA) said.
During winter, when fuel and food costs increase,
female-headed households become highly vulnerable.
“Widowed women are also at greater risk of
emotional problems and impaired psychosocial
functioning than either married women or men,
typically because of social exclusion, forced
marriages, gender-based violence and lack of economic
and educational opportunities,” said Zalesne.
“In Afghanistan’s patriarchal society, the death of
a husband not only diminishes a woman’s economic
independence but also damages her sense of social
protection,” said Hussain Ali Moin, an official at
Government, donors not doing enough
Women’s rights activists such as Soraya Subhrang, a
member of Afghanistan Independent Human Rights
Commission, have criticised the government and
international donors for not doing enough to alleviate
the plight of widows.
“Afghan women in general and widows in particular
do not have a voice to express their problems and are
also deprived of meaningful representation in public
institutions,” Subhrang said.
Officials at the Ministry of Women’s Affairs also
concede that Afghan widows often live in wretched
conditions, and say more needs to be done to deal with
The interim-Afghanistan National Development
Strategy (i-ANDS) has a noble aim: to reduce poverty
among women by at least 20 percent and ensure that
women make up at least 20 percent of all public bodies
by 2010. However, there is a long way to go before the
lives of widows like Zulaikha can be changed for the
better, analysts say.
Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), a
project the Office for the Coordination of
Humanitarian Affairs. IRIN is UN humanitarian news and
information service, but may not necessarily reflect
the views of the United Nations or its agencies.
[This report does not necessarily
reflect the views of the United Nations]