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After four decades of war, Afghan widows battle for homes

by Rina Chandran | @rinachandran | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 22 January 2020 01:00 GMT

Tahera Mohamedi hunches over a tandoor oven where she bakes bread for a living in a refugee settlement near Barikab, on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan. November 7, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Rina Chandran

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Often with few livelihood options, Afghan widows are also generally denied a share of land and property, even though these rights are recognised in the Afghan constitution

By Rina Chandran

KABUL, Jan 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - After her husband was killed and their home in Baghlan province torched in Afghanistan's long-running war, Nasim Gul fled nearly 200 miles to Kabul with her four children and moved in with her cousin, sewing clothes to eke out a living.

As a widow, Gul could not claim the small plot of land her husband had tended, nor was she welcome in her family home, which she had left as a young bride.

"Without my husband, it was very difficult for me to find a home," said Gul, 45, who wears a burqa that covers her from head to toe when she steps outside the home.

"It has been hard living with my cousin for nine years. But no one was willing to give a home to a single woman," she said.

Gul is one of an estimated 2 million widows in Afghanistan who have been disproportionately affected by the war.

Often uneducated and with few livelihood options, they are also generally denied a share of land and property, even though these rights are recognised in the Afghan constitution, its Civil Code and in Islamic sharia law, women's rights groups say.

Security of tenure is usually tied to men, and Afghan cultural norms and customary practices often deny women these rights, particularly those who are widowed or divorced, said Sheila Qayumi at the nonprofit Equality for Peace and Democracy.

"Especially in the provinces, women face severe restrictions and are treated no better than a cow or a goat. They have no rights, and their names are generally not on any documents, so it can be hard for them to claim their legal rights," she said.

"Divorced and widowed women often have to live in the homes of their male relatives or in-laws, where they can also face harassment or violence if they claimed their land or property rights. So they often give up their claim to avoid that."

A house being built on land allocated by the Afghan government for returning refugees and widows near Barikab, on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan. Photo taken November 7, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Rina Chandran


Women have made huge strides in the conservative country since a ban during Taliban rule of 1996 to 2001 from school, work, politics and going outside without a male relative.

But while growing numbers of women now complete education and work in previously male bastions, they continue to face harassment and hurdles, human rights groups say.

This is true particularly of housing, land and property. Only about 12% of land in Afghanistan is arable, according to the World Bank, and 40 years of conflict have left warlords and powerful landlords in control.

Today, about 2.5 million registered refugees in the world are from Afghanistan, the highest number after Syria, according to the United Nations. In addition, more than 2 million have been internally displaced by the fighting.

As hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees are forced back, or return of their own accord, many have opted to settle in cities for work and have struggled to find housing. So, they have built illegal homes on any patch of available land.

These informal structures make up more than two-thirds of the settlements in big cities including Kabul, according to government authorities.

Housing for returning refugees and female-headed households is a priority, said Arifullah Arif, plan and policy director for the Ministry of Urban Development and Land.

The government aims to hand out at least 200,000 apartments and plots this year, and build additional housing as required, he said in an interview.

It also aims to give one million "Occupancy Certificates" to informal settlers over the next three years. The certificate protects the holder from eviction for five years, after which they are eligible to apply for a land title.

Nasim Gul stands with two of her children in front of her house that is being constructed on land allocated by the Afghan government for returning refugees and widows near Barikab, on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan. Photo taken November 7, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Rina Chandran

Unusually for Afghanistan, the certificates are issued in the names of both the husband and wife, and just the woman in the case of female-headed households.

In Kabul's District 1, the smallest of the city's 22 districts, about 550 households - out of more than 9,600 - have received Occupancy Certificates, many of them female-headed households, said deputy municipal director Wahida Samadi.

"Putting the names of women on the certificates has had a major impact, culturally and psychologically," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in her office.

"With the joint title, women are more secure that they won't be divorced or abandoned by their husbands. For widows, it means more security and a place in society," she said.

For Rogul Yermal, 62, a widow who received an Occupancy Certificate two years ago, it has meant just that.

When her husband died 15 years ago, his male cousin tried to oust her several times from her modest home on a hillside. He only backed off when her young sons resisted, she said.

Since she got the certificate, Yermal has painted her 100-square-metre (1,076-square-foot) home and used the document as collateral for a bank loan for a house for her youngest son.

"I never had any documents in my name before," she said.

"Since I got the certificate, I feel safe and can sleep well, knowing no one can take my house from me."


Across the world, land is increasingly seen as a root cause of conflict. In the aftermath of war, access to and control of land and natural resources can be a contentious issue for years.

Dysfunctional legal systems, corruption, lack of transparency and accountability, and the loss of legal documents and land records make it particularly hard to resolve land disputes during and after war, according to researchers.

Afghan women, particularly widows, face major hurdles to accessing the security that land and property can give them, said Jon Unruh, an associate professor at McGill University in Montreal, who studies land rights in conflict situations.

"Ways of attaching themselves to their lands is a problem because they may not have documents attesting to their marriage, or their names are not on land documents because the lands were registered in the names of their husbands," he said.

A man measures the boundary wall of a house as part of a programme to to survey and register all properties in Kabul, Afghanistan. Photo taken November 6, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Rina Chandran

Human rights groups say more Afghan women are bringing cases of inheritance rights to court, particularly in urban areas, as awareness grows. Yet there are concerns that the impending withdrawal of U.S. troops may stall hard-won progress.

Even when they do manage to own land or property, for many Afghan women the struggle is far from over.

In Deh Sabz district, about an hour's drive northeast of Kabul, Tahera Mohamedi is awaiting the completion of her home by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) on land allocated by the government.

Mohamedi, 50, fled to Kabul with her family 10 years ago from Bamiyan province amidst fierce fighting. Shortly afterwards, her husband died, and she was left to raise their five children by baking bread for neighbours in a tandoor oven.

Mohamedi rented a small home from a male relative who lives in Iran, but has fallen behind on payments.

"He has been harassing me to pay up or leave his house," she said, as she hunched over the tandoor.

"I am happy I will finally have my own home, but I worry that he can still take it from me somehow."

That is a concern for Gul, as well, who six years ago received a plot of land in Barikab, a small settlement north of Kabul ringed by the snow-capped Hindu Kush mountains.

With no money to spare, she was unable to build a house until NRC stepped in to construct a one-room home with an outdoor toilet.

"I am very happy that I can once again live in my own home with my family," Gul said.

"But I also worry about the safety of my daughters without a man in the house. As a widow, everything is harder."

(This reporting was supported by the International Women's Media Foundation's Howard G. Buffett Fund For Women Journalists.)

(Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran; editing by Jumana Farouky. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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