An Afghan mother and her child

KABUL, Afghanistan (WOMENSENEWS)–As evening approached in one of west Kabul’s poorest neighborhoods, Parwin sat outside in the waning light, trying to mend one of her daughter’s dresses with a precious bit of thread a neighbor gave her. She didn’t worry about stopping to prepare dinner. There would be no dinner that night.

Her family is accustomed to eating only twice a day. But Parwin worries that even those two meals–bread and tea in the morning, and rice at midday–may be threatened if foreign aid, which already arrives irregularly, stops coming altogether to the city’s Demazang district where she lives.

Parwin, her eyes dull with weariness, welcomed a guest into her two-room home built from war rubble. She gestured toward her husband, lying on the floor in a dark corner, covered with a blanket. He used to bring in a little money by reselling lemons, but fell ill two months ago. “Day by day, he becomes worse,” she said. “I don’t know how we’ll survive.”

Unemployed and uneducated, Parwin–who, like many Afghans, goes by her first name only–is currently her family’s head of household. In a country where many men have been killed in more than two decades of war, at least 30 percent of all Afghan households are headed solely by women, according to UNICEF estimates. Figures are higher if one counts homes where men are alive but without work.

That causes particular hardships for women in this male-controlled culture, particularly in urban areas like Kabul, where joblessness is estimated to be as high as 70 percent. Women are often last in line for work. To survive and keep their families afloat, they depend on donations from charitable organizations, small business loans and the contributions of their children, many of whom are pulled from school to work street jobs.

Prospects for Women Grow Slowly

Job training and prospects for women are growing, but slowly. Because of this, some 40,000 children work on Kabul streets to help support their families, UNICEF studies show. That’s about one-fifth of the city’s children. Most child workers scavenge scrap metal, wood or bricks, or hammer sheet metal, sell newspapers or wash cars. They are lucky to earn 5 cents per hour.

Nearly 80 percent of the country’s women and girls are still illiterate, according to a recent U.N. report. In conservative areas, families are often still reluctant to send their girls to school. Parwin does want her two daughters, who she says are about 12 and 15 years old, to be educated. But they may have to become the family’s main breadwinners if her husband does not recover. “Food comes first,” she said.

“The fact that these children are not being educated is an immense long-term concern for our country,” said Miriam Nawabi at the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington. “There have been improvements for women and children in the last couple years, but the starting place was so low that there’s still a long way to go.”

Poor Neighborhood Holds Story of Afghanistan

Demazang, once the frontline in shelling between rival warlords, lies in the margins of Afghan society–a neighborhood so poor, its residents facing challenges so great, that it is largely overlooked as the country struggles to recover from nearly a quarter-century of war. Its residents, mostly former refugees who returned from Pakistan after the Taliban fell, scramble over war wreckage to reach their homes. The scent of open sewage drifts through the air.

But financially speaking, the district is not an exception. Many other regions are struggling in this country where the average yearly income per capita is $280.

In the Bibi Mahru district, 36-year-old Laila described how her husband fled to Iran during the Taliban years, leaving her with three children. He never returned. She survived by becoming a squatter in a rundown brick room where she pays no rent. She and her neighbors are without electricity. Sewage is open. Most homes hold little more than worn carpets, pillows and blankets. Laila’s neighbor had a parakeet in a cage, a rare bit of life and color in this neighborhood.

A year ago, Parwaz Microfinance, a nonprofit organization aimed at helping women in the post-Taliban era, granted Laila a small loan, a change that brought her new hope. A number of nonprofit groups have started offering such loans, often using relatively small donations from local charitable organizations in the United States and elsewhere.

Laila used the money to buy a wagon and stock it with cigarettes, sodas and snacks. Now her sons, age 14 and 12, walk the streets, pushing the wagon and selling the refreshments. “They try to take turns going to school,” she said. “Of course, that means they fall behind in their studies. I wish they could go full time, but we need them to work.”

Sima, Laila’s neighbor who put her age at about 60, does yard work for a wealthier family to help support her grandchildren. “We can’t afford to spare them and send them to school yet, but it is my dream that my granddaughters will be educated,” she said as she served guests a platter of parsley she pulled from her employers’ yard, along with fresh ground pepper and salt to dip it into
–a real treat in Bibi Mahru.

Sharing Nail Polish

Back in Demazang, one of Parwin’s neighbors is Mahbuba, who gives her age as about 15. Unlike most of the neighborhood’s children, Mahbuba was clean, wearing a purple and black dress and a white necklace. She proudly displayed her fingernails, painted on the top half with orange polish, as were those of most of the girls and women who are her neighbors. “Someone found some nail polish two weeks ago and we all shared it,” she said.

Mahbuba’s mother is her only guardian, as her father was killed in war. She isn’t going to school, but her mother has managed to send her to a class to learn how to sew upholstery for car seats. That is the bright spot in her days. “While we are sewing, they teach us geography and some things about health. And I have lots of friends there,” she said.

Both Mahbuba’s and Parwin’s families returned to Afghanistan from Pakistan two years ago. When they first arrived here, they lived on top of rubble while building their homes from the shattered bricks. The homes look nearly identical: two windowless rooms, wadded paper stuck between stacked bricks, roofs made of burlap from bags that once held rice supplied by an aid organization.

Parwin’s face is weathered by the sun, her fingers cracked and dry. Asked her age, she said, “Forty, maybe. Who can say? Living in such conditions, you forget even your name.” Asked to recall her happiest days, Parwin looked at the ground a moment, silent, as her daughters stood watching her. “I cannot remember,” she said at last with an apologetic smile.

Masha Hamilton is a journalist and novelist whose second novel, “The Distance Between Us,” was published in November.

For more information:

PARSA in Kabul:

Women for Afghan Women:

Women’s Edge Coalition–
$2.5 million U.S. grant for Afghan women approved
Investment in Women Will Ease Poverty Rates and Increase Economic Growth for Afghanistan:

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