By Sana Atif* and Mahsa Elham*
Saira is a 43-year-old woman who works 16 hours a day in one of the rural villages in the Samangan province of Afghanistan. She endured those long hours while growing and selling vegetables to provide for herself and her four daughters.
Like many rural women, she must undertake physically demanding tasks, which often result in chronic illnesses and injuries, in order to earn enough money to support her family. Rural women must also deal with misogyny within their families, communities and from the Taliban regime. And like so many rural women, Saira* has no other choice but to work from morning to night.
Two decades ago, in an unofficial social custom called “Badal,” Saira was married off to her brother-in-law. While most of the men in her village are labourers or farmers, her husband, Abdul Rahman, is a gambler. And that is the primary source of the hardship that Saira and her family have experienced.
She worked tirelessly from 5 a.m. until 9:00 p.m. to milk cows at her home, then sell dairy products with the help of her brother-in-law. She used to earn 100 afghani a day, which helped support her family’s basic needs, especially food. Then, Abdul Rahman gambled away their cow. Losing their only source of income was a severe blow to Saira, who was determined to raise her four daughters despite the challenges.
This time, with advice from a neighbour, Saira started growing vegetables in her backyard. Helped by her two eldest children, she began selling the produce with other products from the village in the central provincial market. It wasn’t much, but provided her with a daily income of 200 to 500 afghani.
Despite all the hardships imposed by her husband, Saira’s life seemed to be slowly getting back on track when tragedy struck. The events of that day are burned into her memory: “I had gone to see my sick mother, leaving my fourth daughter, Razma*, who was three and a half years old, at home. Suddenly, I heard the screams of children, indicating that someone had fallen into the canal. We all rushed to the scene. One of the neighbours jumped into the canal and pulled out my daughter. I didn’t know it was Razma until I saw her. I screamed and ran towards her. She was vomiting water. We rushed her to the central hospital in Samangan with a three-wheeler, but it was too late; she had already passed away.”
Rural women often have to undertake laborious tasks, including household chores, farming, caring for livestock, and carrying heavy loads of forage and farm produce. It can be a monotonous and exhausting routine. For Fauzia*, a 45-year-old woman from Shah Wali Kot district in Kandahar province, her day normally begins at around 4 a.m.
“I wake up before the morning call to prayer, knead dough, and then give water and fodder to the animals [cows and sheep,” she tells Zan Times. “After performing the morning prayer, I light the oven to prepare breakfast tea. I also bake bread and breakfast food using its fire.”
In addition to all that work, Fauzia helps her husband with the family’s farming: “We cultivated cumin and figs in the fields. I have to harvest and clean the cumin, weave the figs, and then dry them. Afterward, I have to collect the chaff and bring a bundle for the animals. When I return home, I’m tired and relieve my fatigue with tea and start embroidery and sewing again.” Such a daily routine filled with many household and farming tasks is common for most women living in rural Afghanistan.
Though Wajiha* is just 20 years old, she’s one of her family’s breadwinners. With her father unable to work for two years due to a broken leg that healed badly and her mother focused on doing household chores, it has fallen to Wajiha and her 17-year-old brother to handle most of the family’s livestock and agricultural work in Lal wa Sarjangal district in Ghor province.
They own 20 head of cattle and sheep – their milk is an important source of income for the family of four. “All the responsibility for farming and livestock is on my and my brother’s shoulders. We have a lot of land,” she explains to Zan Times. “My brother and I mow the grass, bringing it home in about two to three hours. Cutting the grass is very difficult for me. After cutting the grass, we have to tie it, load it onto the donkey and bring it home. When I bring fresh grass for the cows and sheep in the spring, I carry it on my back. As winter approaches, we have to store feed for the animals, which makes our work even harder.”
Wajiha and her brother can earn up to 50,000 afghanis a year from selling surplus forage. They use that money to buy basic supplies, such as rice, flour, sugar, clothing, and medical expenses. Sometimes it isn’t enough and when their income is low, they are forced to sell cattle and sheep.
In addition to worrying about family finances, the women must cope with having limited access to adequate healthcare services, which can often mean medical problems that can develop after years of strenuous work and heavy lifting aren’t treated properly. The rural women who talked to Zan Times complained that they and other female workers frequently suffer from chronic illnesses and injuries, including muscle injuries, as well as disc problems in the spine.
Access to doctors is also challenging, especially as the women live in rural or remote areas and must travel long distances to reach the nearest physician or medical centre. “We don’t have access to transportation and healthcare services,” says Fauzia. “When we get sick, we must travel for hours on a motorcycle from our district [in Kandahar] to the city. We can’t always see a doctor, especially for women’s health issues, so we have to rely on homemade remedies.”
Such health problems can develop quickly, especially when children are forced to do heavy work. Parwin*, a 15-year-old girl from Panjwai district in Kandahar province, says, “My back has been hurting for about nine months now. Initially, it would hurt gradually, and I thought it might be due to fatigue. Usually, it would get better with a painkiller. But over time, my pain worsened to the point where sitting and standing became difficult for me. During my menstrual period, my back hurts even more, and I can’t stand up, and my bleeding is worse than before. When I went to the doctor, he said that due to heavy lifting, the vertebrae in my spine have been pressed together and need surgery.”
If the physical, medical, and financial stresses weren’t enough, rural women are also finding it has become increasingly difficult for them to sustain their incomes due to the restrictions imposed by the Taliban on women’s activities and movements.
Before the Taliban’s takeover, Masoumeh* used to earn between 200 to 300 afghani per day selling dairy products, which could cover her family’s expenses. The 40-year-old is the head of her family in Herat province after her husband, a police officer in the previous government, was killed three years ago. With no close relatives able to financially support her family, Masooma made a living by producing and selling dairy products such as milk, yogurt, and butter. “After my husband, Hamidullah, became a martyr, I had to milk two cows myself and sell their milk. In the mornings, after the call to prayer, I would milk the cows, and after boiling it, I would take it to the market in Karukh for sale. Many other women were doing the same work,” she tells Zan Times.
Taliban restrictions on women in public as well as hardening cultural norms of society mean that many women could no longer go to the market to sell their products, Masooma explains, adding, “If the Taliban see women selling things to men, they mistreat them and harass them.” Those anti-women policies have directly impacted women’s livelihoods and incomes. For example, Masooma now sells her dairy products in the village for half the price she’d get in the market, meaning she barely makes 150 afghani a day even though she’s selling seven or eight kilograms of milk.
For now, Masooma continues to sell her dairy products. She has no other way to earn income to support her family.
*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the interviewees and writers. Sana Atif and Mahsa Elham are the pseudonyms of Zan Times journalists in Afghanistan.