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Sorrow and Stigma: The Double Tragedy of Afghanistan’s Young Widows

After decades of conflict, Afghanistan is home to around 2.5 million widows, with an average age of 35. Struggling to support themselves and unaware of their rights, these young women also suffer under cultural customs that leave them isolated and impoverished.

Written by Hizbullah Khan Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Widows in Afghanistan line up for food aid. The country has around 2.5 million widows, one of the world’s highest rates of widowhood in relation to population size. After losing their husbands, many young widows face not only poverty, but also stigma and social isolation.DAVID FURST/AFP/Getty Images

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan When 16-year-old Nasreen* didn’t hear from her husband for five days, she knew something was wrong. A policeman in Kandahar province, he usually came home every day after work. On the sixth day, after the morning prayer, someone knocked on her door. It was the cleric and the elders of their village.

“The cleric said he was afraid to inform me that my husband had died,” the young widow says as she prays over her husband’s grave in a Kandahar cemetery.

Nasreen had been a wife for only seven months when her husband was shot and killed by the Taliban while he was on his way home from work one night in late November 2017. This means that on top of mourning and worrying about supporting herself without her husband’s income, she is also the victim of an unsympathetic regional custom. Pashtun communities in parts of rural Afghanistan believe that if a man suffers a tragedy within 10 months of getting married, it is the fault of the bride, who must have somehow cursed the family.

“Soon after the death of my husband, not only his family but also the women of the whole village started mistreating me,” Nasreen says. She says she had to endure verbal abuse from her neighbors and was beaten by members of her late husband’s family.

“Two tragedies happened to me,” says Nasreen. “One, I lost my husband, with whom I was spending a very happy life, at a very young age. Second, I don’t have any children and there is no chance for me to remarry as I have become famous as an unlucky bride.”

In four decades of almost continuous conflict, Afghanistan has become a country of war widows. There are no official figures for how many women have lost husbands in the fighting, but estimates say there are around 2.5 million widows in Afghanistan. Early marriage is common in rural and some urban parts of the country – where a third of girls get married before they turn 18 – so the average age of an Afghan widow is just 35 years.

For these young women, the death of a husband is a double tragedy. Unaware of their rights and stigmatized by tradition, they are often left to live out their lives in poverty, childless and alone.

‘The Symbol of Sadness’

Around 94 percent of Afghanistan’s widows can’t read or write, according to U.N. estimates. Unable to work, many widows are thrown into extreme poverty after their husbands die. But young war widows also suffer from the sudden collapse of family roles, which are often dictated by rigid cultural rules. Women are usually devoted to childcare and housekeeping, and depend on men for shelter and food. When a teenager loses her husband, it is difficult for her to adapt to taking on both roles.

“Young girls aged between 15 and 19 are the main victims of the war. A huge number of war widows are girls, not women,” Uzma Azimi, a young widows’ rights activist, says.

Because they are so young, these widows are less likely to know how to access the help that’s due to them, and more vulnerable to the oppressive traditions that keep them isolated and impoverished. The Afghan government provides compensation to widows, but a lack of education leaves many young widows unaware that they even have the right to those financial benefits, let alone how to apply for them, Azimi says.

Uneducated, illiterate and never having worked outside of the home, many widows in Afghanistan resort to begging to support their families. (SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images)

Even if a widow does know her rights, conservative customs can deprive her of any compensation due to her. According to cultural law in rural Pashtun communities, when a woman loses her husband, she spends a year in mourning before a married brother-in-law takes her on as a second wife – no matter the age difference between the two. Any inheritance or assets the widow had access to now belong to her new husband.

Tradition also forces widows into social isolation, which can be particularly devastating for a young woman.

“Teenage widows lose all freedom after the death of their husbands – they are the symbol of sadness,” Azimi says. “They are not allowed to attend wedding ceremonies, to talk loudly or enjoy themselves. Even wearing colorful clothes, jewelry and using makeup are completely forbidden for widows in Afghan culture.”

Noting that Afghanistan has one of the world’s highest rates of widowhood in proportion to population size, Azimi is calling for the government to create separate laws to protect against customs that exploit women after their husbands die.

But she knows a new law won’t have much effect unless village elders also commit to upholding widows’ rights. “Most of the widows in rural areas have little access to the courts and believe in the tribal justice system,” she says. “The tribal elders should reform traditions through Jirga – a tribal court in Afghanistan – and prevent cruel practices against widows.”

Azimi also wants to see the government offer more than money to help women who have lost their husbands and, with them, their only source of income. “Compensations cannot resolve the financial issues of widows permanently. The government ought to provide employment opportunities to all widows.”

Forced to Stay Poor

Fatima,* an 18-year-old mother of two, has been a widow for a year, ever since her husband was killed in a blast in Helmand on their second anniversary. The couple had celebrated their anniversary in the morning before he went out to his job as a property dealer; he returned that night in a coffin.

Like so many young widows, Fatima struggles to support her family, compounded by her community’s unbending ideas on what women are allowed to do, even when they become the family’s only source of income.

“I have not received any help from the government since we lost our only breadwinner and it was also very hard to take on the role of a husband because widows are bound by strict cultural practices,” she says.

At first, Fatima tried to get a job in a government office but nobody would hire her without any education or experience.

“Now I am a street beggar, asking for help from strangers for my children’s survival.”

*The names of some people have been changed to protect their identities.

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