• PROOF:
  • December 7, 2015

Confronting the Struggle of Afghanistan’s War Widows

Photographer Paula Bronstein has been covering Afghanistan since 2001, when she went to document the U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom for Getty Images.

Despite the chaos of war—meant to unseat al-Qaeda and the Taliban—she found herself fascinated by the culture and landscape of the region, and kept returning for the next 14 years to capture the intricacies of the place and its people.

Afghan War Widows
Bibi Kubra tries to comfort her son Mirwais, three, who had just fallen in the mud as a storm hit the Nasaji Bagrami displaced peoples camp. The camp has very basic mud floors that have problems every time it rains.

While many photojournalists focused on the frontlines of the conflict, Bronstein often preferred to find quieter stories that showed the war’s lasting impact. That led her to turn her gaze on the more than 2.5 million widows who have become the seldom seen casualties of war.

“Three decades of conflict has produced a vast population of widows with all these problems,” says Bronstein. “This is a story about the legacy of the war.”

Afghan War Widows
Raqia, 26, hides during a sandstorm as she begs on the streets to feed her three children, Ahmad, three; Najila, four; and Jahid, one. Her husband was killed while fighting with the Afghan National Army. She lives in a tent because she can’t afford any rent.
Paula Bronstein for the Wall Street Journal

Bronstein says there are approximately 50,000 to 70,000 war widows living in Kabul alone, and while wives of fallen soldiers, policemen, or other government employees are entitled to a regular stipend, widows of civilians are only permitted 5,000 Afghanis (about $75) a month.

But even if they are entitled, many widows don’t collect the payments. A U.N. report issued in February 2015 says that most civilians’ widows only received a small, one-time payment instead of a regular stipend, mainly because they don’t know how to navigate the systems needed to access the money.

Afghan War Widows
Mahta, 70, pretends to be handicapped as she begs in downtown Kabul—she feels it’s the only way she can survive as a beggar in a city that has so many. Her husband was killed during the Taliban era, leaving her with four children. She makes eight to ten dollars a day.

This means that in a country where the welfare of a woman usually depends on her husband, many Afghan widows are left penniless and powerless.

“Most of them told me they had no education, which makes it difficult to make a living unless it’s begging on the street, or maybe cleaning houses,” says Bronstein. “Life is just one big struggle for them.”

Afghan War Widows
Sahar, 27, sits with her two handicapped children, Abdul Mosawer (right), four, and Ahmad Modasser, three. Her husband was killed three years ago by a suicide attack in Kabul. She was eight months pregnant at the time, and her son was born two weeks later. She says he is mentally disabled because of the shock he experienced in utero. Her brother-in-law married her out of respect.

Without money or support, large numbers of Afghan women have ended up in extreme poverty—living in desperate conditions with their children. In some cases, a relative of their husband will marry them out of respect, but many others are left to fend for themselves.

Afghan War Widows
Gulshan, 29, is pictured with her youngest daughter, Shubillah, four months, and Najiba, five. She has six children and lives in extreme poverty. Her landlord threatened her, saying that if she can’t pay rent, she should hand over her youngest daughter. Gulshan cleans houses to make a few dollars, but it’s not enough to feed her children.

Bronstein’s normal photographic style is to make intimate images that showcase her subjects’ daily lives, but she said getting access to many of Afghanistan’s war widows—and getting permission to shoot them—was often difficult. She worked with local NGOs and fixers to locate the women, but often wasn’t allowed much time to photograph once she was there.

“The fixer would call ahead; he knew what I was doing: I would have a nice initial meeting over tea, which is the way you do things there, and then the biggest problem was the brother-in-law or someone in the family wouldn’t allow me to come back again,” she says. “I’d take some portraits during the first meeting, and I’d get excited, and then the door would slam in my face. And this was very frustrating. And this happened a number of times.”

Afghan War Widows
Sima begs outside a bread shop in Kabul, waiting for handouts. She said her husband died as a soldier with the Afghan National Army.

In addition, she was often told by her fixers that certain neighborhoods they had visited previously were suddenly off-limits. Her own safety was in jeopardy.

“Access and security plays a huge role in what I can do,” says Bronstein. “This turned out to be more of a portrait series because I had so much trouble with accessing the widows more than once.”

Afghan War Widows
Asefa, whose husband was killed in an ethnic conflict, now lives with her six children in a tent, where they weave carpets to make money. She lost her husband three years ago during a battle between the Hazara and the nomadic Kuchi tribes.

Ironically, Bronstein says that while men didn’t want their female relatives photographed, the women themselves were always eager to have their story told.

“The women, every time, wanted to be photographed. They feel—especially woman to woman—that I care about their situation; I want to document it. They are used to nobody caring. I think that if they didn’t have restrictions put on them they would just let me into their world.”

Afghan War Widows
Marghal, 80, has suffered from severe depression ever since her husband was killed by the Taliban more than eight years ago. She depends on her son, who is a laborer.
Paula Bronstein for the Wall Street Journal

She was able to get slightly better access at a displaced person’s camp in Kabul, where large numbers of widows are living after fleeing violence in Helmund Province. Bronstein describes the living situation there as “squalid, muddy, [and] impoverished.”

“Sanitation there is horrible; they don’t have any heaters,” she says. “It gets very cold, and there has been a lot of death, especially with babies. I can’t even believe they live like this—but they’ve been living like this for years now.”

Afghan War Widows
Naseema, 35, is surrounded by her eight children, along with three others who belong to her son. Her husband and one son were killed in a NATO bombing three years ago. Having fled the violence in Helmand Province, she lives in the Nasaji Bagrami displaced peoples camp with hundreds of other families. The camp has no running water, and all refugees live in muddy, squalid temporary shelters.

Bronstein says that in addition to the grief of losing their husbands, widowed women are also at greater risk of emotional problems due to social exclusion, gender-based violence, and the stress of everyday life. But, despite the difficult access, it’s a story she is committed to telling over time.

“I’ve been in and out of the country over so many years, and to me, this is something where things don’t get better for them. They just don’t,” she says.

“The project took a lot longer than I thought it would. But for me I felt like, ‘That’s OK, whatever it takes, I’ll just keep this going.’”


Paula Bronstein is an award-winning photojournalist who has spent more than 30 years documenting frontline news and doing issue reporting around the globe. She was a senior staff photographer for Getty Images for more than 10 years, covering Asia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and beyond. Her work is now represented by Getty Reportage. See more of her images on her website and follow her on Instagram.

This project was made possible in part by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

There are 12 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Chris
    July 7, 2016

    Is there an organization I can donate to that will help these women directly?

  2. Abdul Hamid
    March 14, 2016

    Paula, We would like to feature you on our instagram page @everydaykandahar.

  3. Elias
    December 12, 2015

    Great job, all those who created and shared this article and the beyond shocking photos.
    I just copy Anonymous’ phrase “I will not focus on the cause. The only way to help the widows is to uplift Afghanistan’s economy and create jobs so the widows or their families can earn a salary that will enable them to slowly transform their lives”

  4. Anonymous
    December 9, 2015

    I will not focus on the cause. The only way to help the widows is to uplift Afghanistan’s economy and create jobs so the widows or their families can earn a salary that will enable them to slowly transform their lives

  5. Sujith
    December 8, 2015

    Very sad story. In Afghanistan common peoples problems are big but our international news media not bother about that. They only taking big issues like Europe area.
    And I like to work for these people and I got any chance. I like to join your nat geo’s team.

  6. imitare
    December 8, 2015

    Mrs. Bronstein, i admire your amazing work and will to raise the awareness of Afghanistan’s War Widows situation. the world needs more people like you.

  7. Vidita
    December 8, 2015

    This is beyond sad…:-(
    What kind of generation are we raising ..all i could see was the despiration ,terror, fear, fights, destruction of human spirit…in any war women n children are the worst sufferers…stop this hatred…thrs stil time to mend..!!

  8. Linda Adkins
    December 8, 2015

    Great story and photography! Can you tell me how it is that these women aren’t wearing the burqa or otherwise covering their entire faces, thought the Taliban would require this.

  9. Rizwana
    December 7, 2015

    Great work, how can I help these widows directly?

  10. Laura
    December 7, 2015

    A true road of peace: caring for widows and orphans. I’d like to know more about how real help can be provided. I understand it would be very complicated… But am sure small scale would be far more helpful than government interventions.

  11. Susan Hayek-Kent
    December 7, 2015

    this just make me so sad. I don’t know how the situation can be solved.

    ms bronstein does beautiful work.

  12. Ahmad Zia Hidary
    December 7, 2015

    great work

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