After four decades of war, Afghan widows battle for homes
After her husband was killed and their home in Baghlan province torched in Afghanistan’s longrunning 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 recognized 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.” Harassment and hurdles Women have made huge strides in the conservative country since a ban during Taleban 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 percent 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 twothirds 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.
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 femaleheaded 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-sq-m 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.”