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Amid Poverty And Discrimination, Afghan Women Beg For Survival

A woman and child beg on a bridge in Ghazni.

Parwana, an Afghan mother of five, begs on the streets of the southeastern Afghan city of Ghazni. She says seeking charity is her only means of survival since her husband, a policeman, was killed by the Taliban two years ago.

“When my husband was killed, I sent the authorities several requests for help, but I never heard back or received any assistance,” she told Radio Free Afghanistan inside her crumbling mud house in Ghazni’s Khwaja Ali neighborhood. “My elder son, a teenager, has speech disabilities, so I can’t send him out to work. And the others are too young.”

“This is why I go out to beg most days, to gather enough alms to buy food,” she added.

More than 340 kilometers away in the town of Tarin Kot, Bibi Hawa, another widow, shares a similar story. She says the killing of her husband, a civilian, last year in one of the frequent firefights between Afghan security forces and Taliban militants left her ruined.

She manages to scrape together enough for survival through begging and occasionally washing clothes for families in her town. “I am destitute because my brothers refused to give me a share in our property,” she told Radio Free Afghanistan. “My brothers are denying me the rights that Allah and the Koran have granted me.”

A burqa-clad woman and a girl beg on the outskirts of Kabul. (file photo)
A burqa-clad woman and a girl beg on the outskirts of Kabul. (file photo)

Islamic Shari’a law grants women a share in inheritance, but many families deprive Afghan women of this right that the Afghan state law also recognizes. The issue largely goes unreported, but it adversely affects the lives of many Afghan women and affords them few options for financial stability.

Sharifa turns to begging to look after her bedridden husband and their six daughters in the northern city of Sheberghan. She said she had no choice after failing to get any help from the authorities.

“We have nothing. No oil, no rice, and no food,” Sharifa, who goes by one name, told Radio Free Afghanistan. “We don’t have any firewood, so we can’t sleep, and we shiver all night because of the cold.”

Suffering The Patriarchy

Parwana, Sharifa, and Hawa are three of the thousands of Afghan women who have turned to begging because their husbands, many government soldiers or Taliban fighters, were killed or injured.

The increasing number highlights the government’s failure to aid or create safety nets for the most vulnerable of its citizens and how family and community bonds have been weakened during more than four decades of war. Yet the country’s robust patriarchy continues to deny women their economic share according to Islam and Afghan law.

Sheberghan’s residents say more and more women are begging on the city’s streets. Zmarai, a young resident, says rampant unemployment among youth and men is a factor.

“On the one hand poverty is rising while on the other violence is exploding,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “Many men are unemployed amid this uncertainty, which prompts some to turn to drugs. All this contributes to this unfortunate phenomenon [of begging].”

Hussain Karimi oversees the vocational training programs run by the Afghan Labor and Social Welfare Ministry. He says they are doing their best to help some of the most vulnerable Afghans by providing training in vocational workshops. They recently trained 240 people, including 150 women, in sewing, carpet weaving, poultry farming, and furniture making.

“We are trying to train the poor, the widows, the addicts, and the disabled across Jawzjan so that they can eventually earn a livelihood,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan while mentioning the northern province where Sheberghan is the capital. “Women who beg on the streets of Sheberghan make more money than the government can provide.”

Sharifa and other women begging in their all-enveloping veils, however, maintain the authorities are not interested in helping them.

A woman begs on the streets of Sheberghan in northern Afghanistan.
A woman begs on the streets of Sheberghan in northern Afghanistan.

In Ghazni, provincial Governor Wahidullah Kalimzai is also adamant the government is doing all it can to help destitute women, particularly the widows of soldiers.

“We are always eager to do whatever we can to help them. Our first priority is to give them houses to live in,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “We always try to give them food aid and other things to help them.”

But Fatima, a widow in Ghazni, says no one offered them help after her husband, a policeman, was killed in a clash four years ago.

“Our life is very bitter,” she said inside her one-room mud house near a graveyard in Ghazni. “We often go hungry. I go out and beg or send my children out to beg,” she added. “We don’t have anything -- clothes, food, or rent.”

In Tarin Kot, Zarmina, another widow, says she started begging after her brothers refused to give her a share in their ancestral property after her husband was killed in a clash last year.

“I have no choice but to beg to raise my children,” she said.

Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on reporting by RFE/RL correspondents Alem Rahmanyar, Habibur Rahman Taseer, and Sharifullah Sharafat.