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Afghan Widows Struggle To Survive Amid Humanitarian Disaster

Afghan widows queue in front of an aid agency office for their monthly ration in Kabul prior to the Taliban takeover. Nearly all international aid has since dried up.

After her husband died, Gul Saka managed to survive by doing odd jobs and collecting a meager pension from the Afghan government.

Now the widow is struggling to feed her 10 children amid a devastating economic and humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, where millions are on the brink of starvation.

Afghanistan, one of the most aid-dependent countries in the world, rapidly slid into crisis after losing most international development funding and humanitarian assistance after the Taliban seized power in August.

“Our lives are now so miserable that even death looks better,” Gul Saka told RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi. “We often go hungry.”

A man distributes bread to Afghan women outside a bakery in Kabul.
A man distributes bread to Afghan women outside a bakery in Kabul.

A staggering 95 percent of people are going hungry in Afghanistan, according to the United Nations. That percentage rises to nearly 100 percent in households headed by women, including the country's estimated 2 million widows.

Since the Taliban toppled the Western-backed Afghan government, Gul Saka has not received her pension. The odd jobs she used to do have also dried up. And many of the foreign nongovernmental organizations that helped the poor and vulnerable have left the country.

Meanwhile, the price of basic food staples has skyrocketed even as unemployment has soared.

“Prices have increased dramatically,” said Gul Saka, who lives with her three sons and seven daughters in a crammed mudbrick house in Tarin Kowt, the provincial capital of the southern province of Uruzgan. “There is no work. I can’t even get anything from begging.”

The Taliban is not recognized by the international community and is under punitive sanctions, complicating efforts by foreign donors to reach millions of Afghans in urgent need of assistance.

Gul Saka, who lost her husband a decade ago, laments that the little aid that is flowing into Afghanistan is not reaching the neediest.

"After they [the Taliban] seized power, we have not seen any aid," she said.

Begging For Flour

Durkhanai, another widow in Tarin Kowt, said her family is eating only a fraction of the food they were consuming before the Taliban takeover.

"We need to skip lunch now," the mother of five told Radio Azadi. “We only eat half a loaf of bread for lunch.”

Previously, Durkhanai said her family could afford to eat three times a day and buy eggs, vegetables, and even meat occasionally. Those items are now luxuries, she said.

Widows wait for their food rations at an aid distribution center in Kabul before the Taliban takeover.
Widows wait for their food rations at an aid distribution center in Kabul before the Taliban takeover.

"Now I beg for flour," said Durkhanai, who used to do household chores to earn a living. "The families who were once prosperous are becoming poor, too.”

Durkhanai said that soon she will not be able to afford the $30 monthly rent for her family’s dilapidated mudbrick house.

She said skyrocketing food prices have forced her family to spend all their money on food.

“If we don’t find work, we will not be able to survive for long,” she said.

Famine-Like Conditions

In a report released on March 17, the World Food Program (WFP) said that almost 100 percent of female-headed households in Afghanistan are facing "insufficient food consumption" and are employing "crisis-level coping strategies."

Households headed by women are the most vulnerable group among the nearly 9 million Afghans whom the WFP warns are at risk of famine-like conditions.

The agency estimates that some 23 million Afghans, or over half of the country's estimated 38 million population, are expected to be acutely food insecure this year.

"In Afghanistan, because of decades of war, female-headed households [and] widows are struggling," Shelley Thakral, a spokeswoman for the WFP, told RFE/RL. "They are facing a very acute shortage of food, which is very worrying."

Years of severe drought and decades of conflict had forced more than 18 million Afghans to seek humanitarian aid before the Taliban takeover. But since the militant group seized power, Western donors have suspended aid, the economy has collapsed, and millions of Afghans have lost their jobs.

Amid the economic and humanitarian crisis, hunger has become widespread.

An Afghan woman with her children begs for alms in Herat.
An Afghan woman with her children begs for alms in Herat.

Thakral said food insecurity in Afghanistan is "alarming," with more than 66 percent of Afghans having resorted to desperate coping mechanisms.

Some Afghans have sold their kidneys and others have sold their children in a desperate bid to survive.

Women and children are the most vulnerable to hunger. Earlier this year, UNICEF warned that some 1.1 million Afghan children under the age of 5 risked dying of severe acute malnutrition while more than 3.2 million children faced malnutrition.

Since January, roughly 13,000 newborns have died from malnutrition and hunger-related diseases, according to Human Rights Watch.

Thakral said that the WFP aims to provide food aid and vocational training to some 18 million Afghans, including widows, this month.

Orzala Ashraf Nemat, the exiled head of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, an independent think tank that was based in Kabul, said households headed by women are finding it difficult to access aid in the deeply conservative and patriarchal country.

“If a food distribution center is already crowded by men, it makes it difficult for women to access it,” she told RFE/RL.

“Aid agencies definitely require separate centers for women -- particularly women heading their households to access aid,” she said. “They are particularly needed in hard-to-reach areas.”

Nemat said that in order to alleviate the food crisis in Afghanistan the international community needs to give Afghans development assistance to grow their own food.

“Longer-term assistance is needed to help people in standing on their own feet and not be dependent on food aid from outside,” she said.

For now, many Afghan widows are simply fighting to survive.

Khaista Lala lives in a crumbling mudbrick house in the eastern city of Jalalabad with her six daughters and two sons.

She said her sons have resorted to scavenging for plastic waste and selling it to buy food for the family.

“We hear that there is a lot of aid coming to Afghanistan, but we have not seen any so far," she said.

  • 16x9 Image

    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan.

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    RFE/RL's Radio Azadi

    RFE/RL's Radio Azadi is one of the most popular and trusted media outlets in Afghanistan. Nearly half of the country's adult audience accesses Azadi's reporting on a weekly basis.