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Afghanistan: What happens to single moms under Taliban rule?

Shabnam von Hein
June 17, 2024

Being a single mother in Afghanistan often means fighting for survival. Under the Taliban, options to earn money are few and far between — and many of the women are simply left at the mercy of their relatives.

An Afghan woman seen inside a tent
Many Afghan women decided to flee the country after the Taliban takeover in 2021Image: Patrick Pleul/dpa-Zentralbild/picture alliance

Fouzieh is a single mother of a five-year-old son. Her husband left the family after the Taliban took power again in Afghanistan in August, 2021. He was afraid of retaliation.

"I was a police officer and worked for the national security forces," Fouzieh told DW. "We lived in Kabul when the Taliban came. My husband abandoned us. I had to go into hiding with my son. We have been on the run for over a year, moving every couple of months and staying with our relatives."

Since the Taliban takeover, many former police officers and soldiers have gone missing or faced execution, as they are seen as traitors.

Fouzieh is now working as a cleaner in order to survive. It's the best job she can find. Her relatives are her only support system, but they cannot do much to help either. Afghanistan's economy is in ruins.


Harsh dress codes hamper Afghan women's rights


Taliban keep women away from jobs, schools

At least 90% of Afghanistan's population lives in poverty, according to the International Rescue Committee.

More than half  — 28.8 million inhabitants out of 40 million — rely on humanitarian aid for survival. Some 95% of Afghans are not getting enough to eat, with that number rising to almost 100% in female-headed households, according to UN figures. 

In the wake of their takeover, the Taliban had promised to respect women's rights within the limits of Sharia — the strict Islamic code adhered to by the group.

In practice, however, they introduced a slew of new laws and political measures to deny the rights of women and girls across the country — women were prohibited from working, gaining an education, and even leaving their homes without wearing a head-to-toe burka known as a chadori or being chaperoned by a male relative

UN data indicates some 1.5 million girls and young women have been systematically denied their right to education.

Afghanistan: Girls still banned from secondary school

The fate of single mothers tends to be especially tough, said Kabul reporter Azadeh Shirza, one of the few female journalists still working in the Afghan capital, albeit very carefully and in limited capacity. She and her remaining colleagues are trying to give a voice to women in Afghanistan.

"I have spoken to at least 50 single mothers in the last two years," she told DW. In Kabul "single mothers can still work in secret — in kitchens, at the tailors', hair salons or cleaners." But in smaller cities and villages, things are different, she said.

"When everyone knows everyone else, and the Taliban have full control, not even [working in secret] is possible. The women are at the mercy of their relatives and need to submit and obey. Many are mistreated and often forced into arranged marriages to become someone's second or third wife."

Women feel like 'prisoners,' men forced to be jailors

For Afghan girls, "all the plans they had for their futures have been taken away from them completely by this ban on education," Heather Barr, associate women's rights director for Human Rights Watch, told DW.

Single mothers without adult sons or brothers living with them are virtually confined to their homes because they have no male relatives to chaperone them in public.

"Women and girls that we speak to often say that they feel like prisoners," Barr said. "They feel like the walls have closed in on them. It really is an experience like being a prisoner and the men and their families have been forced to be jail keepers."

Boys give up education to work

Due to abject poverty, single mothers are often forced to send their children to work. Young boys are put under pressure to take responsibility and start earning money. "They work as street sellers, shoe cleaners, or farmhands in the fields outside the city," Shirzad told DW from Kabul.

"These children are often exploited and even sexually abused. Their mothers have no other choice but to send them to work."

In addition to young girls being excluded from schools, the boys in single-mother households are also forced to abandon their dreams of education to provide for their family.

Former police officer Fouzieh, like many other single mothers in Afghanistan, is desperate. And she is ready to take drastic steps to improve her position.

"I'm thinking about selling my kidney," Fouzieh says. "I want to escape, with my child."

Worries grow for mental health of Afghan girls under Taliban

This article has been translated from German by Darko Janjevic

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