Gulsom is from a rural part of Afghanistan. She had once dreamt of providing her four small children with an education and the chance of a better life. Those dreams were shattered the moment her husband died violently and suddenly.
Gulsom found herself with a newborn baby, forced to clean other people’s houses to earn enough money to feed her family. Even then, she couldn’t make ends meet.
“Some days I could not find work so I could not make lunch or dinner for my children and they went to bed hungry. When they finally went to sleep, I wept and called on God to find me work so that I could earn money.”
Gulsom’s eyes spilled over as she remembered the despair she felt at being unable to provide even the most basic needs for her young children.
I’m Dr Sally Henderson, the Senior Program and Policy Coordinatorat ActionAid Australia. Since 2013, I have been travelling to Afghanistan to speak to women about their lives. I’m so passionate about helping these amazingly strong and courageous women build a brighter future.
But right now, that future is facing a frightening threat.
The horrors of the past
For years, the Taliban (the religious and political group that enforced strict Islamic law when it was in power) denied Afghan women the right to even leave their houses. Those who dared to disobey were violently attacked or even killed.
The Taliban forbade girls to get a basic education, leaving many women unable to read and write. Without the skills to earn a living, and denied the right to get a job, pregnant widow Gulsom found herself with no adequate means to feed her children. She told us:
“Shortly after my husband died, I gave birth. When my child was just one month old, I had to start washing clothes in other people’s houses. It was the only way that I could find the money to buy bread for my small children. But I couldn’t get enough for us to eat three meals every day.”
The challenges of the present
Afghanistan is still one of the most difficult places in the world to be a woman or a girl. 87% of women suffer from physical or emotional abuse. Simply by walking in a public space, a woman can be seen as ‘disobedient’ and thus fair game for violent attack.
In rural areas, deep poverty and conservative social attitudes leave many women at the edge of survival. Denied access to education, business or paid work because of social norms, women must depend on male relatives for everything. Young girls can be sold as wives to much older men because their families simply can’t afford to feed them.
But despite these unimaginable hardships, Afghan women are coming together to change their lives.
By joining one of ActionAid women’s groups, women like Gulsom can find support to feed their families through learning about different livelihood skills. The women also gain training in basic literacy and numeracy – skills that completely change their status in the eyes of their communities. Once they are able to read and write, their confidence soars and so does their potential to earn a living.
At the same time, the ActionAid women’s groups learn about their rights under both Afghan and Islamic law. Knowing about their rights and coming together to claim these rights brings them still more influence and respect in their communities.
Gulsom now looks forward to the day she can feed her children on her very own eggs – a symbol of her status as the proud head of a successful household.
“My children and particularly my daughters are so busy and happy with my chickens,” Gulsom smiles.
I’ll never forget sitting in a circle on the floor with a group of women who would once not have dared to leave their houses. They told me they had not only started their own business making soap, but actually set up a market stall. Women doing business in a traditionally male space like this would once have been unthinkable!
I still smile whenever I remember the pride in their voices. That conversation showed me so clearly just what women are capable of with the right support.
An uncertain future
But right now, I’m very worried that all our hard work supporting brave Afghan women will be undone. This is an absolutely critical moment for women’s rights in Afghanistan. With each passing day, the threat of the Taliban’s return looms larger.
Taliban leaders have chillingly declared that ‘a woman’s place is in the house – or in the grave’.
If the Taliban come back to power, they will once again try to turn women into prisoners in their own homes and forbid them to take part in paid work. The only chance that many women will have to survive is to produce their own food at home.
ActionAid women’s groups are a lifeline for women in Afghanistan. There, with the support of other determined women, they learn the skills to farm their own land and become respected in their communities as household providers.
This will be absolutely critical in helping Afghan women to survive the Taliban’s return and live securely and with dignity.
My experience over decades has shown that female strength and solidarity is one of the most powerful forces in the world.