'The Taliban threatened to shoot my daughter for selling pens': Life in Afghanistan two years on


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Jul 14, 2023

'The Taliban threatened to shoot my daughter for selling pens': Life in Afghanistan two years on

Mina’s teenage daughters have scarcely been outside in the two years since the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan. “Taliban restrictions on women and girls have hit my daughters the hardest,” the

Mina’s teenage daughters have scarcely been outside in the two years since the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan.

“Taliban restrictions on women and girls have hit my daughters the hardest,” the 41-year-old widow, who lost her husband in a suicide bombing two years ago, tells i from her home in Kabul.

After the group closed the girls’ school, her three daughters began working in a carpet-weaving workshop, until that too was shut down.

“They have lost their spirits. Once free to work outside the home, they now find themselves trapped inside, denied an education and forbidden from pursuing their talents in carpet weaving and tailoring. Their dreams are ruined by the reality they face,” says Mina, whose name has been changed to protect her identity.

“Even the streets are no longer safe for them to work. My youngest daughter used to sell pens in the streets. But a Taliban soldier stopped her and threatened to shoot her if he finds her selling in the streets again. I am left with no choice but to keep them inside to protect them.”

All Mina can do, she says, is “pray for a miracle to lift us from this never-ending hardship”.

Since the Taliban returned to prominence in August 2021, the economic crisis already facing Afghanistan has deepened dramatically. Jobs have been lost in the turnover of power, and the restrictions on women’s ability to work has slashed income for many families.

Those aligned with the previous regimes, or speaking up for human rights, live in fear for their lives.

Around 18.4 million people already required humanitarian assistance, but today, that figure has surged to 29.3 million – equivalent to nearly half of the UK’s population. From January to June this year alone, 350,000 children in Afghanistan were admitted to hospital for “severe wasting”, the most lethal form of malnutrition.

Some families have resorted to selling their children while others are offering up organs on the black market.

Determined not to fund the Taliban, the international community has slashed its aid to Afghanistan, but aid organisations have warned this is exacerbating the country’s problems.

The UK’s own contributions to the country have dropped dramatically; in March 2023, Foreign Office minister, Andrew Mitchell, announced that the 2023-24 aid budget for Afghanistan and Pakistan would be £141.9m – 53 per cent lower than the previous year.

This crisis has hit Mina’s family acutely: shoes and proper clothes are a “luxury we can’t afford”. Her family of seven children live in just one room. They eat predominantly rice, lentils, potatoes and a few vegetables. Fruit and meat are too expensive. Sometimes she borrows money from her neighbours and repays them with eggs from her chickens.

“Our house is falling apart, and we all live in one small room, with my daughters unhappy with our living conditions,” she says. “The harsh winters are unbearable, as we can’t afford coal to keep warm. We’re struggling a lot, especially with the absence of my husband, my youngest son always cries yearning for him. We receive some assistance from the village representative, providing a little cash for medicines and other essentials. Charities occasionally offer food like flour, cooking oil, and rice, but it’s still not enough.”

Mina is desperate for her sons, aged four to 14, to go to school, but cannot afford the supplies. And she needs the income they could bring from working.

“With my sons left without their father, they lost their way and couldn’t attend school for two long years. The older one worked at a car workshop, and the younger polished boots and collected plastic bags to help with our expenses. But the shop where the younger one worked closed down and my other son too can’t find work anymore although they are hard-working,” she says.

“They go to school but unfortunately, we can’t afford school supplies like notebooks and pens, and they spend a significant amount of time fetching water and doing chores outside the house. It’s a difficult decision for me as a mother because I want them to study, but we also need the money to survive. This leaves me no choice but to encourage them to work instead.”

In another part of Kabul, Akhtar (not his real name), a 62-year-old father of six, tries to make ends meet selling driving lesson booklets near the government traffic department. He is the sole breadwinner for his family, but he often brings in just 80p a day. Their rent is £27 a month, and they cannot afford the medication they need for Akhtar’s heart condition and his wife’s respiratory issues.

With his eldest son, Akhtar scours the streets every day searching for scrap metal and plastic waste to sell for extra cash. He cycles four miles every day to buy stale loaves of bread from a bakery which gives it to him at half price, which he serves with yoghurt as a meal for his children. Sometimes he and his wife skip meals.

“We make do with simple and affordable dishes, like fried onion and bread or fried tomatoes, sometimes accompanied by okra when we’re fortunate,” he says. “We also eat egg broth which is a mixture of few eggs and water. We can’t afford nutritious food, fruits, meat or beans. Only once, I could afford one kg of sour apples for my daughter for half a dollar.

“Buying clothes for my children is a distant dream. They rely on hand-me-downs from a neighbour who throws his grandchildren’s old clothes into our yard. Today, she also tossed a few clothes into our yard which my daughter is now wearing. Our living conditions have worsened too, as our one-bedroom house (partitioned by a shabby, tattered curtain) is in disrepair and has broken windows and mosquitoes can easily slip into the room. I worry about the health of my children living in such conditions.”

Akhtar’s neighbours used to send him leftovers, but as the economic crisis continues to bite, they don’t have anything spare to offer.

“The situation has become difficult for everyone around us. I witnessed a neighbour begging a charity agent to enroll him in an aid programme. The same man previously used to buy us flour and cooking oil and sometimes rice,” he says. “We ration everything, and sometimes, we even burn wood or papers in our mud oven to bake bread. The occasional food aid from aid workers has been a lifeline, but it’s not enough to cover all our needs. The last aid we received was a few months ago, which I sold to buy medicine for my heart condition.”

Like Mina, he fears especially for his daughters, but still hopes they will get an education “to provide them with a brighter future”.

“I am afraid that once our daughters reach beyond sixth grade (the point at which girls are no longer allowed to access education), they can’t go to school because of Taliban’s restriction on girls’ education,” he says. “It is a constant fear for my daughters as well.”

More than 120 miles west in the province of Nangarhar, close to the border with Pakistan, Samira (not her real name) lives with 11 other relatives in a house without proper windows or doors.

They sleep on the floor, and during cold nights, have to huddle together to keep warm. The house gives them no protection from insects, and Samira says she “lives in constant fear of being bitten”.

“We used to have a well inside the house, but it became contaminated, leaving us with no choice but to travel to a distant well to fetch water,” she says.

“My children’s health deteriorated this year, with all of my kids falling sick, experiencing rashes and fever. Visiting the government clinic provides limited relief, as they often provide very little medicine. We struggle to afford basic necessities like meat and salt, and at times, we have to go without any food, leaving my hungry children in tears at bedtime.”

The family’s income is just a dollar a day; some of her sons try to earn money by doing labour for the other villagers, and during the summer Samira harvests wheat in the fields, but sometimes they resort to begging on the street.

Life wasn’t like this for Samira’s family before the Taliban took over: her son was a Government soldier, but left the role when the militant group came to power. Some of his colleagues have been killed, and Samira fears for his life. Many activists, opposition figures and those who worked in the previous administration or with foreign governments have been forced into hiding or exile since August 2021.

It also spelled an end to her daughters’ dreams of education.

“The restrictions imposed by the Taliban have disrupted our lives so much,” she says. “Unfortunately, almost all of my children have been deprived of education due to our poverty and the Taliban’s curbs. My daughter, who was in the sixth grade, had to stop attending school, and our access to institutions providing work programmes and assistance has been severely limited since the Taliban’s rise to power.”

Christian Aid, which is supporting the families with supplies through its local partners, said that while there was “some respite in the security situation, life is hugely constrained”.

“Over the last two years, Afghans have endured a continuing economic crisis, massive problems in the banking system and a humanitarian catastrophe,” a spokesperson in Afghanistan said. “The most disturbing aspect is girls and women losing their agency and participation in public life.”

The charity’s head of global advocacy, Jennifer Larbie, warned that Afghanistan “cannot be allowed to be another forgotten crisis”.

“We owe it to the people, for whom life has become a daily struggle for survival, to step up urgent humanitarian funding. Women and girls deserve their dignity restored,” she said.

“Even in the face of many challenges and constraints, Afghan NGOs and INGOs have continued to save lives and provide much needed services. Afghan NGOs, including women-led organisations, face specific operational and funding challenges and need our solidarity and on-going support.

“Lifesaving humanitarian aid alone is not enough; Afghanistan continues to need programmes that can build the resilience of communities and promote peace. Humanitarian support for the people of Afghanistan must not become inferior to aid pledges made to other crises globally.”