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‘Forgotten’ nomadic women face lonely struggle in marriage, menstruation and childbirth

By Sana Atef* and Freshta Ghani 

Standing up outside her black tent in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province, Gulzarina puts her hands on her hips and grimaces in pain. She is young, only 24. But years of back-to-back pregnancies, agonizing childbirth and complications from child-bearing have left her with chronic back pain. 

The spasms have bothered her since she got up to gather firewood and thorns from the plains and valleys, where her traditionally nomadic community used to roam with their caravans of sheep, goats and camels. Decades of war, drought and technological changes have forced Afghanistan’s Kuchis to abandon their traditions and almost destroyed their culture. Most have settled in remote and often insecure areas in northwestern and southern Afghanistan. 

Although they number 4.4 million people, according to data released by the Taliban Central Statistics Office in March 2022, Kuchis (meaning “nomads” in the Farsi) remain one of the poorest and most marginalized groups in the country.   

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Like other Kuchi girls, Gulzarina was subject to strict gender rules governing all aspects of her life. Married off early, she was 11 years old when she left home to live with her husband – too young to have even started menstruating. When her first period came two years later, Gulzarina was terrified. She sought help from her sister-in-law who handed her a piece of cloth to use in place of a sanitary pad, and a piece of advice.  

“I was in a lot of pain, and I couldn’t talk to anyone about it because my sister-in-law said it was shameful, and only shameless women talk about their monthly cycle,” Gulzarina told Zan Times.  

Once Gulzarina’s periods started, so did her pregnancies. She has given birth four times and had four miscarriages, alone, in the tent. 

“I always endured the pain alone, and when my baby was born, I would cut the umbilical cord myself and bury the bloody pieces of the placenta in the ground,” she said. During her last visit to the doctor, she was told that her uterus had become infected, the result of being unable to follow proper hygiene during menstruation and after childbirth. 

For many Kuchi women and girls, the lack of access to reproductive health education and services, such as specialized antenatal and postnatal care, means they continue to face increased risks in a country that is still one of the most dangerous places to be a mother.   

Plight of “forgotten” Kochi women 

Afghan women can expect to have an average of 4.6 babies in their lifetimes. Even though the fertility rate has fallen in Afghanistan since 2001 when the Taliban were ousted from power, it remains one of the highest in Asia.  However, the maternal mortality rate is high with 638 maternal deaths for every 100,000 live births in 2017.  

A report published by Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) in February 2023, shows that it is getting harder for Afghans to access healthcare. Nearly 90 percent of those surveyed “delayed, suspended, or decided not to seek medical care” in 2022 due to barriers such as cost, and nearly two-thirds say women face worse obstacles than men. MSF’s teams in Afghanistan are also reporting more complicated pregnancy cases compared with 2021 as women are forced to travel long distances to obtain care.  

​​​Shazia*, a 23-year-old nomadic woman in the Spin Boldak area of Kandahar province, got married at the age of 12. She has been pregnant every year for the past 11 years. 

Like Gulzarina, she was not assisted by a midwife or any other health professional before, during or after childbirth. Years of repeated pregnancies without any obstetric intervention or care have also taken a punishing toll on her body, resulting in persistent pelvic and back pain, for which she cannot afford to seek treatment. 

Any money she gets goes towards paying off her husband’s debts. A drug addict, Shazia’s husband betrothed their then one-year-daughter to his sister’s son, in exchange for 400,000 afghani (US$4,600). A decade has passed since then, and the family of the groom-to-be is impatient for the wedding to take place. 

“My daughter is too young. When I tell her that one day, she will have her period and get married, she screams and cries. It breaks my heart, so I told my sister-in-law that they should wait until my daughter is 14, but she doesn’t agree,” Shazia said. 

Farzana Kochi, who campaigns for the rights of nomadic communities in Afghanistan, says entrenched gender discrimination puts the health of Kuchi women and girls at risk. 

“Their families marry them off, and they even consider it shameful for girls to stay at their father’s house. When they marry at a young age, they give birth to many children without having access to medicine and doctors,” she said. 

“Kuchi women have constantly been subjected to discrimination and injustice. Their voices have never been heard, and they have been forgotten,” she added. 

Dowry and discrimination perpetuate suffering 

UNICEF has reported girls being sold as young as 20 days old for future marriage in Afghanistan.  

Fatema*, a Kuchi woman, has been married twice, first at the age of 14 to a man who beat her so severely the jirga council of local elders agreed to her request for a divorce. Her second husband promised her father a dowry of 500,000 afghanis (US$5,900), but couldn’t afford to pay it on his wages as a daily labourer.  

Lately he has been talking about betrothing their 10-month-old daughter to raise the money needed to pay his own dowry debts. 

“I don’t want my daughter to experience what my father brought upon me. I wish my dowry could be paid off so that I could save my daughter from this ordeal,” Fatema said. 

Next to Fatema’s tent in ​​Kandahar, Bakht-Zaminah*, a 65-year-old woman with kohl-lined eyes, calls her daughter-in-law demanding tea. Trembling in fear, Zubaida* obeys.  

Zubaida was only two months old when she was first ​​betrothed to Bakht-Zaminah’s son, who was 11 years old at the time. The boy was killed in a landmine explosion while taking sheep to graze in nearby pastures.   

“When I wanted to marry her off to my son, her mother objected and said her daughter hadn’t reached the age of maturity and hadn’t had her period yet. She even reported to the police that her daughter was a child, but I said I wouldn’t wait any longer, she must get married,” Bakht-Zaminah said. 

Zubaida was eventually made to marry Bakht-Zaminah’s younger son, and was already living with her in-laws when she got her first period. The occasion was made worse by her mother-in-law’s scorn and derision over Zubaid’s lack of knowledge about menstruation.   

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the interviewees and journalists.  

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