Photo: Flickr / Josep Castell

A widow’s life

Pashtun women receive an inferior education and no share in a family’s inheritance. Marriage contracts do not entitle them to any money. Women must depend upon men. Men must do everything: a man provides all the shopping and household goods, and pays any children’s school fees and the utility bills. A woman can’t go out of her home without a man to accompany her. It is considered essential that Pashtun women follow Pashtun principles.

But when a woman is widowed her lot worsens. All these responsibilities now devolve upon her: children’s care, education, home maintenance and conformity to the community’s traditions, including dress codes. She can’t get a well-paying job due to a lack of education. She can’t earn money as a domestic worker because of family ‘honour’. She can’t remarry, because a new husband will not accept stepchildren and it is considered disgraceful to marry a woman who has already been married. So she represses her emotions for the sake of her children, and dedicates her life to them. She survives on contributions and gifts donated by her relatives and community. But this is rarely enough for her household.

Asmat was a poor woman, who had been widowed at 23 years of age. She couldn’t take care of her children properly. Due to her children’s inadequate education they were unemployed; due to their poor conditions they turned to immoral means to earn money.

Montaza was a widow. She worked for a neighbour to earn money. She had four sons and a mother-in-law to support. Her mother-in-law had a pension which they used to buy flour, sugar, ghee and grains. The remainder of the goods was paid for by her earnings and through charitable donations. It wasn’t enough for the family because sometimes she needed to buy medication for her elderly mother-in-law and her children. She earned just enough to celebrate Eid. When her sons had grown up, family members mocked them because their mother went out to work in a stranger’s home. Her relatives forbade her to work there. They told her to send her sons out to work instead. She succumbed and ended their education prematurely so that they could work.

These widows deserve assistance so that they can start businesses, stand their ground, and support their families themselves. The first step to solving these problems is talking about them and raising awareness of women’s human rights. Change is slow for women in Pashtun society and needs to be supported. In underdeveloped areas (such as FATA, KPK Baluchistan (in Pakistan) and Afghanistan) there is no awareness of women’s rights, and women are left destitute or reliant upon men.

Employment opportunities are necessary. Women don’t need hand-outs; rather, they need help with finding and creating economic opportunities so that they carry on their lives. They have land – but they don’t have the understanding or means to develop it. They have abilities – but they don’t have the necessary technology to develop them. So if they can be helped with these issues they will be able to achieve their dreams and live in prosperity.

Many women are widowed at a young age and spend much of their lives without a partner. The need is most pressing when there are festivals or celebrations – especially Eid –  and their children demand new, fine clothes, shoes or other gifts. The mothers want to provide them but their conditions make it impossible. They cannot even provide a standard education or nutritious food because their lives are spent in a continual state of crisis.