Afghanistan's War Widows

Photographs by Paula Bronstein

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Today after decades of conflict and war, Afghanistan has an untold number of war widows. Experts say that there are approximately 2.5 million widows, with an estimated 50,000-70,000 of them living in the capital Kabul alone. Most of the civilians killed in the war were victims of firefights or bombs planted by the Taliban. Unfortunately there has been “collateral damage” by the U.S. military as well who have also contributed to the fatalities with airstrikes as recent as the Kunduz tragedy that hit the Doctors Without Borders hospital. This was later called a mistake.
According to the Afghan Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, which also deals with the martyred and disabled, they pay benefits to approximately 80,000 war widows who have registered to receive them. Wives of fallen soldiers, policemen or other government employees are entitled to a regular stipend equal to their spouses’ salaries, while widows of civilians killed in suicide attacks are only permitted 5,000 Afghanis a month. A U.N. report issued in February 2015, stated that most widows of civilians killed in war received a small, one-off payment, instead of the regular stipend.
In a country where the future of a woman depends on her husband, many Afghan widows end up feeling powerless. Especially when a woman loses her economic independence and her place in society. They are seen as a bad omen by Afghan society, most of them living in extreme poverty. The widows hardships are increased by the fact that most are illiterate and uneducated. The options for remarriage are limited although it is sometimes possible for a widow to marry a relative of her late husband, the problem becomes much worse if she chooses to remarry outside the family she could possibly lose custody of her children. According to Afghan tradition, mothers will have large families on average of 4 to 6 children. A working widow can earn as little as $20 a month, which barely puts food on the table. Often widows are seen begging in Kabul's traffic choked streets clutching their children. Widowed women are also at greater risk of emotional problems because of social exclusion, forced marriages, along with gender-based violence. Sometimes they are even forced to go into prostitution. In some cases they attempt suicide from the emotional stress of everyday life. For Afghan women, the dangers of war go far beyond the violence of combat. In situations of armed conflict, women suffer some of the greatest health and social inequities in the world.