There is no word for “single mother” in Pashto or Dari, the two major languages spoken throughout Afghanistan, yet after four decades of conflict — from the Soviet invasion to the war on terror — millions of women in Afghanistan are raising children on their own.
These women are one of Afghanistan’s most vulnerable populations. Some have had to flee abusive spouses, others have lost their husbands in combat or terrorist attacks and some became pregnant before marriage and have been charged with “moral crimes.” In a country where few women are literate or have ever worked outside the home, many widows are forced into remarriage, frequently to a brother of their late husband, and those who choose to remarry outside the family risk losing custody of their children.
Reihana was 14 when her father sold her to a man twice her age. She was then taken to Khost, a city on the border of Pakistan. Here, her husband physically and sexually abused her until she ran away with her five children, 5 to 11 years old.
She now studies political science at a university part time while working full time at The Ministry of Counter Narcotics. Fridays are the one day of the week when Reihana can spend quality time with her children.
Malika visits her late husband’s grave. She was eight months pregnant when her husband and mother-in-law were murdered in front of her eyes. She fainted moments later.
Malika and her five children live in a small room in the Wazir Abad neighbourhood of Kabul and survive on her monthly income of 800 afs ($12) from washing clothes for wealthy Afghans.
Aziza and her late husband in the 1970s. Aziza lost her husband to cancer in 2006, when her oldest daughter was in high school. Aziza brought up her four children on her own with the support of her brother-in-law, a prominent Afghan-Australian musician.
Aziza spends a quiet Friday afternoon with her children and son-in-law at home. She was never forced to remarry but temporarily lived in the same apartment as her brother-in-law’s family, which she recalls as the most difficult time of her life.
Shakar lost her husband to a suicide attack and now works as a cleaner. She pulled her oldest daughter out of school to provide care for the younger children, allowing Shakar to work more, which she must do in order to finance her family’s basic needs.
Shakar’s children hang an image of their father back on the wall. Their memories of him are blurred and mostly shaped by this, the only photo that exists of him.
Habib al-Mustafa is a guarded women’s settlement set up by an Iranian non-governmental organization 10 kilometres outside of Herat City. It hosts over 130 families without male guardians. Other than relatives of these women, no men are allowed inside.
Marzieh lost her husband, a soldier with the Afghan National Police, one and a half years ago, and has been living in Habib al-Mustafa township with her three children for over six months now.
Fifty-seven children live with their mothers inside the female ward of Herat Prison. The women are often abandoned or disowned by their families for crimes they may or may have not committed. Their collective fear is of the world outside, where they will be forced to raise their offspring alone after their sentence is finished.
Wahida, who chose not to reveal her face, sits behind the curtain on her bed inside the female ward of Herat Prison, while her daughter rests on her outstretched legs. Wahida was arrested when she was seven months pregnant, convicted of helping her sister-in-law to murder her husband. Wahida’s daughter, Mahtab (10 months old) was born inside the prison.
The prison has a kindergarten and a small playground for the kids.
Women line up at the prison gate to receive baby products and other donations distributed by an international NGO.
There is a community in Kabul known as Tapaye Zanabad – the hill that women built. For years, women have been converging here in mud hovels they build by hand. The inhabitants now number most likely in the thousands. They may not have been able to escape poverty, but they have triumphed in another way: they have something distinctly their own.
CREDITS: Writing and photography by KIANA HAYERI, Art Director MATTHEW FRENCH, Interactive Developer JEREMY AGIUS, Photo Editor MOE DOIRON, Editor LISAN JUTRAS