Reaching Afghanistan's hidden war widows in Helmand

Village woman in distance with a man at doorway Afghan women living within their compounds in Helmand are barely visible to the outside world

After decades of conflict in Afghanistan, there are almost two million widows leading secluded, poverty-stricken lives. But now all-female army units are going into remote villages in an effort to integrate these women into wider society.

In a small village on the edge of the Bolan desert, near Lashkar Gah, a group of women sit huddled together on a sunny terrace. Some are girls, barely out of their teens.

All are shrouded in dark veils.

These women are widows. This one village is home to at least 80 of them.

They are the tragic victims of three decades of conflict which has created a generation of widows and orphans.

In rural Afghanistan women are invisible, locked behind doors in the safety of their compounds.

Reaching such women is a huge challenge for the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf), but one that is considered vital.

It is also viewed as an important part of the wider counter-insurgency campaign in Afghanistan.

Hidden away

As it is culturally inappropriate for male troops to have any contact with local women, teams of women soldiers form units, known as the Female Engagement Team (Fet), to try to engage with Afghan women.

Start Quote

You walk through bazaars, you will not see a woman. They are just hidden away”

End Quote Corporal Raziya Aslam British military linguist, Helmand

In Helmand there are huge challenges.

"It's very different to Kabul, there's a big difference. A large proportion of women in Helmand are uneducated. You walk through bazaars, you will not see a woman. They are just hidden away," says Corporal Raziya Aslam, who works as a military linguist in Helmand.

"Women in their culture get kept behind closed doors. It's not because the men want to rule the roost, and it's more about their safety," says Lance Corporal Stacey Nicholson, a member of the Fet, based in Lashkar Gah.

To help them, she needs to travel to their villages in an armoured convoy. This remains a patriarchal society and Lance Corporal Nicholson has to talk to the local village elder before she can meet any women.

"Once that elder gets to know me and knows what my job is, he then invites me to his compound to meet the women. Once he's comfortable, he then takes me to another compound, maybe his friends or relatives," she says.

This eventually leads to a meeting, known as a "shura".

'Deep suspicion'

I travel with the team to a shura. We go to a small village to meet a group of elders. It has been arranged with Wakil, the village elder.

The aim of this shura is to help local widows set up a sewing co-operative. When we arrive, we are greeted by Wakil and his brother, who share the compound with their wives and children.

Group of Afghan women and one man, meeting British women soldiers Female British soldiers meet a 'shura' of Afghan widows, after gaining approval from male village elders

We are seated out on the terrace where a rug is laid out for us and chai is offered.

However, a short time passes and there is still no sign of the village widows.

Lance Corporal Nicholson admits there remains a deep suspicion of troops. The armoured vehicles outside have attracted attention and women are reluctant to be associated with soldiers.

"When we do come into areas we find that some women are scared that Isaf are here. They think it is something to be feared," she says.

Major breakthrough

Gradually a group of around eight women trickle in. They are sombre and appear to be in deep mourning, a demeanour which is expected of them in this socially conservative rural area.

WIDOWS IN AFGHANISTAN

  • There are an estimated 2 million war widows in Afghanistan
  • 30,000 - 50,000 widows reside in the capital Kabul
  • Most women are widowed as a result of the decades of conflict in Afghanistan, during which many men were killed or went missing
  • Low life expectancy and early marriage in Afghanistan result in women often being widowed in their 20s and 30s

Sources: United Nations Development Fund for Women (April 2006), International Organisation for Migration (May 2006), Institute of War and Peace Reporting (2003), United Nations (2006)

Most of them live in poverty and are dependent on financial handouts from relatives. It is hoped the money offered today will help buy the materials they need for a small tailoring business.

Afghanistan has one of the highest rates of widowhood in the world, proportionate to population size.

The United Nations Development Fund for Women (Unifem) placed the number of "war widows" in the country at more than two million, out of an estimated population of 31 million people in 2006, with between 30,000 to 50,000 widows residing in the capital, Kabul.

Many are illiterate and unable to support themselves financially.

Even though it has taken three months to reach these women, the female engagement team view it as a major breakthrough. Compared to similar attempts in other areas, this shura has been a success.

During the meeting the widows sit with their heads bowed. At no time do they attempt to speak, although they express gratitude.

Finding a voice

But elsewhere in Helmand, women are finding a voice. At the Afghan Police Headquarters in Lashkar Gah, a group of women are training to be officers.

They sit in a classroom where they are taught basic literacy and numeracy.

Saragama is one of them. Her late husband was a policeman who was killed on duty three years ago.

She was left to support two children.

"The widows right now are faced with such difficult and hard problems," she says.

To feed her family, Saragama worked as a cleaner, earning less than $2 (£1.20) a day. She was advised to train as an officer for the opportunity to earn a higher wage.

Other women are not so fortunate.

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