After completing the twelfth grade, Sanam* got a government job in one of the departments of Afghanistan’s Ministry of Interior in April 2018. She earned a monthly salary of 18,000 afghani, an important source of income for her 11-member family.
During her three years of employment, Sanam, now 24 years old, gained experience while deciding to follow in the footsteps of her sister, who was killed defending the country seven years ago. “The Taliban killed my sister,” she tells Zan Times, explaining that her sister was an experienced military worker who had received training in Turkey.
Then the Taliban took over Afghanistan. Like thousands of female workers in the government, Sanam lost her job and became housebound. However, after three months of unemployment, she received a call from the Taliban intelligence office offering her a chance to return to work. Despite the fear of being identified as a Taliban worker and possibly being killed, Sanam felt she had no choice due to the unsuitable economic situation of her family. “I went to my duty with fear and terror. I was terrified when I saw our boss surrounded by armed guards on all sides. Since that day, we went to work every day in fear, and they never looked at women. Their behaviour was very uncomforting,” she explains.
While Sanam was once again working, her pay had been slashed in half to just 9,000 afghani a month. Nine months later, she was dismissed. “Previously, almost 30 women worked in one section, and now probably only five women are left. They either work as cleaners or in the women’s search section,” she says.
Sanam is now depressed and in despair due to the impact of being unable to find a job and worry about the effect her loss of income was having on her family. “My mind is confused, and my heart sometimes feels like it is breaking due to intense pain,” she recounts. “It feels like I’ve been falling apart for two years, and I don’t have a good condition. Unemployment, poverty, and fear have all turned my life into ruins, and I can’t do anything.”
She isn’t alone. According to news reports, about 4,000 female employees worked in the security sector, including the Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Interior, and the National Security Directorate, before the Taliban returned to power in 2021. Most of the female personnel were the breadwinners of their families. Since then, many left Afghanistan while those who remain struggle with the fear of being identified as former military personnel. Many are unemployed and forced to stay at home due to Taliban edicts and worsening economic conditions.
Maryam*, 25, worked in military departments for about five years, including serving as an intelligence officer in the Ministry of Defense in the last three years of the republic. After August 2021, she and her female colleagues asked to be employed by the Taliban. “We submitted petitions and made proposals. One or two representatives of about 100 or 150 female employees went to the Ministry of Defence to submit employment requests or ask them to give us some salaries.” The Taliban never responded.
Maryam used to earn 21,000 afghani a month, enough to support her family of eight. Now she lives in hiding for fear of the Taliban. The family is in debt. “We owe 15,000 afghani to the baker,” she explains, adding that the grocery store owner won’t extend any more credit. “In winter, we slept with hungry stomachs. The Taliban say they provide security for us, and may God give us daily bread, while they took away our jobs.”
With 12 years of experience working at the Ministry of Defence, Zainab*, now 37 years old, expected to be in a senior position by now. Instead, she’s unemployed. Though she has asked the ministry for work following the Taliban’s general amnesty, each request has been rejected. “The last time they told me they took men instead of me and that they didn’t need women at all,” she tells Zan Times. She applied for work at private schools but was not hired because the officials were afraid of the Taliban’s reaction to her military background.
Though her husband works as a building security guard, his income can’t cover the family’s expenses. “The rent for our two-room house is 3,000 afghani,” explains Zainab, a mother of three. “For weeks and months, we can’t afford to buy meat and fruit. We only find a piece of bread to fill our stomachs.”
*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the interviewees and writer. Barfin is the pseudonym of a journalist in Afghanistan.