Afghan women face hardship as Taliban struggles to revive economy
Several Afghan women Al Jazeera spoke to say they have struggled to put food on the table as Taliban fails to revive the economy.
Kabul, Afghanistan – For Zaigul, a 32-year-old housewife from Nangarhar province who lives at the Nasaji camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) near the capital, Kabul, life was already difficult before the Taliban seized power on August 15 last year.
She worked as a maid while her husband Nasir worked at construction sites to bring food to the table for their seven children, but not any more. Since the Taliban’s return to power, the country has plunged into unprecedented economic crisis, with banks running out of cash and state employees suffering from months of unpaid salaries.
The freezing of billions of dollars of Afghan assets by the US and suspension of funds by international financial institutions have caused a near collapse of the fragile economic system marred by decades of war and occupation.
Zaigul, like millions of other Afghans, has no work as most economic activities have run aground following the collapse of the West-backed government of President Ashraf Ghani and the chaotic withdrawal of the US forces in August.
“The most pressing issue is the financial difficulties,” said Zaigul, as she sat on the floor of her one-room home, her children huddled around her.
“You can live without freedom, but you can’t live if you have nothing to eat,” she told Al Jazeera.
The United Nations on Tuesday said about 22 million people – more than half of Afghanistan’s population – face acute hunger. It sought nearly $5bn in aid for the country to avoid a humanitarian “catastrophe”.
Economy in freefall
Like many families in Afghanistan, Zaigul and Nasir’s household income has been slashed over recent months.
With most building projects coming to a halt after the Taliban takeover, and many families becoming unable to afford help at home, the couple has been unemployed.
“Neither of us can find work any more. We lack the most basic things – food, warm clothes and a heater to keep the house warm,” said Zaigul, as she wrapped a thin black shawl around her shoulders.
Two of her teenage daughters were crouched next to her, while the youngest, a toddler named Sana, sat playing with old rags in the back. Despite the cold, her feet were bare, and her clothes sparsely covered her small limbs.
Zaigul’s one-room home was empty except for a few worn-out mattresses that were splayed across a cold stone floor. In the daytime, the family used the mattresses to sit on, before converting them to beds for the night.
In the corner, an emptying bag of flour sat next to a rusted stove which she used to make bread at night.
You can live without freedom, but you can’t live if you have nothing to eat.
Zaigul recounted life before the takeover, saying that despite being poor, her family got by on a meagre income and donations from international NGOs that helped them through the winter season.
“But now, even that [the aid] has stopped,” she told Al Jazeera.
“My children go out to collect rubbish which we try to sell, or paper to burn to keep us warm. Sometimes, I think about going on to the street to beg,” she told Al Jazeera, as she dropped her head into her palms and tears formed at the corners of her eyes.
Western sanctions have dealt a heavy blow to the aid-dependent country, forcing international NGOs to stop operations in the country.
The UN and other aid agencies have since tried to navigate the sanctions to deliver much-needed aid to the country, as public hospitals became unable to afford essential medical supplies or to pay staff salaries.
Like Zaigul, Eloom Bibi, a widowed mother of six from Shemol village on the outskirts of Jalalabad, also depended heavily on donations after her husband – who worked in the police – died four years ago.
“Charity from people helped me a lot. But now, there’s nothing [coming in] and I understand why. People are jobless,” said the 35 year old.
“There are thousands of widows in this country who used to work. Now that the Taliban has taken over the country, all women have been made to stay home.
“What can a woman do to support her family?” she asked, as her youngest, three-year-old Baba-ji, climbed on to her lap.
Bibi has been struggling to pay her rent, buy food for the children “who are too young to work”, or afford their school fees.
“Things were better before,” she lamented as she hugged her three girls. “My kids were going to school – girls and boys. We used to receive donations, and women were free,” she said.
According to independent Afghan analyst Ahmed-Waleed Kakar, “the main challenges for women are those reflected across the country at large – the financial and economic,” he told Al Jazeera.
For Afghan women, economic challenges engulfing the country have been compounded by further restrictions on their freedoms, employment, education and even movement.
Kakar said most Afghans live in rural areas where people depend on agriculture rather than formal employment to make a living. But now, “they are struggling to get by and there’s a massive surge in food insecurity,” he said.
With the economic crisis and severe drought debilitating Afghanistan’s agricultural, economic, financial and banking sectors, it has also affected the government’s ability to pay the salaries of civil servants.
“Women who were in the public sector, alongside the men, are receiving salaries irregularly, if at all,” said Kakar.
Masuda Sultan, an Afghan women’s rights activist agreed.
“Teachers comprised the largest bulk of women’s employment in Afghanistan,” said Sultan, adding that they have not been paid their salaries since May or June, “except for some small payments made by the Taliban.
“While it is good that the international community has agreed to pay them, the money has not yet been mobilised and this has left them in a very bad place,” she told Al Jazeera.
Sultan, who has worked on women’s rights in Afghanistan for more than two decades, said that many businesswomen were also unable to access their funds at banks.
“The biggest challenge [for women] is an economic one, with the assets and aid being frozen,” she explained.
Growing restrictions on women
Despite coming from a family that was financially stable before the takeover, things have also deteriorated for Anzorat Wali, a 19-year-old member of the Afghan national women’s taekwondo team.
While Wali’s brother, a civil servant, continues to work at the foreign ministry, he has not been paid in months.
Meanwhile, her mother – who previously supported the family – lost her job at the Ministry of Education after the Taliban called on women in the public sector to stay home.
For the teenager, life under the Taliban has meant no school, nor what she loved most – taekwondo.
Taking out a photo of one of her recent competitions, the teenager recounted the days when she could practise martial arts along with her sister.
In the picture, the young athlete’s eyes beamed with pride as she stood in her white dobok and black belt to show off a hard-won medal and certificate for third place.
Although she was frustrated over the ban on female sports, Wali feels more pained by the restrictions on women’s education and her family’s financial struggle.
“For me, the biggest challenge is that I can’t work or study,” said Wali, who despite being her final school year, has stayed home after the Taliban shut her school.
Although the Taliban has not officially banned girls’ education, the group’s fighters have shuttered girls’ secondary schools and barred women from public universities in many of the country’s 30 provinces.
More recently, however, secondary-level education has returned to about 15 provinces, according to Obaidullah Baheer, a lecturer in transitional justice at the American University in Afghanistan.
“For the rest [of the provinces], we heard different things,” he said, explaining that the Taliban has delayed the reopening of many girls’ schools.
“The Taliban – whether by accident or design – has had a very elusive and confusing approach with regards to their policies and position on women within society,” said Baheer, explaining that even the group’s leadership is divided on the topic.
It’s very hard to survive, especially if you are a woman in Afghanistan.
Baheer said that while the Taliban clearly banned women from holding positions of leadership, they have not announced other sectors where women are officially barred.
“The result is that many of their fighters are confused about what should, or should not, be done,” he added, explaining that the directives banning women’s travel alone for long distances pushed taxi drivers to refuse to drive women to work for fear of breaking the rules.
“In some provinces, women have been discouraged by fighters on the roads from going to their jobs [and girls to schools] but in others, some women are still in government jobs.
“Every province is making its own decision,” he said, highlighting the depth of the confusion and arbitrary implementation.
But for Wali, the details do not matter.
“We [women] used to go to school or work. Now, we just aren’t allowed,” said the teenage athlete.
“What matters now, is that my family is facing a crisis and that it’s very hard to survive, especially if you are a woman,” she added.