Iguacu Blog

Women of war - behind the frontlines in Afghanistan

Nov 29, 2017
Women of war - behind the frontlines in Afghanistan
Rahila Muhibi
Lead Researcher, Afghanistan

Rahila holds a Masters degree in Human Rights Law from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London and a BA in International Studies and Political Science from Methodist University in the USA. She has previously worked with the UNHCR and Focus Humanitarian Assistance in Tajikistan and with the Danish Refugee Council in Greece. Rahila has lived in the UK, USA, Canada, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Rahila speaks English, Dari and Urdu.

On 21st August 2017, the much-awaited US Strategy on Afghanistan was announced. The country’s security situation has been steadily deteriorating in recent times. Terrorist activities and insurgency, civilian casualties, and increasing casualties within the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) consistently make national and international news headlines.

While husbands and fathers fight and die in the Afghan military, their wives suffer quietly at home, tending to their families and not knowing if they will see their husbands again. iguacu’s Lead Researcher for Afghanistan, Rahila Muhibi, explored this little known subject by interviewing three women whose husbands are fighting the insurgent on the front line.

Women’s Self Help Group in Badakhshan. | Photo Credit: Aga Khan Foundation/ Sandra Calligaro

In a country where the literacy rate for women is only 17 percent, and at least 87 percent of women experience physical, sexual or psychological violence during their lifetime, accessing women who are willing to be interviewed is far from simple. Many of our calls were turned down — some by their husbands, and others due to fears related to their husbands’ profiles — the names of those who volunteered to be interviewed have been changed to ensure their safety.


In Afghanistan, women and those without male protection in particular are subjected to widespread harassment and discrimination. Widowed and single mothers are considered to be “like a pot with no lid” or to put in another way, morally loose. Similarly, the wives of soldiers (while their husbands are away) are finding it hard to cope with society’s patriarchal attitudes, and the harassment and discrimination they endure. 40 year old Laila, — a mother of six and wife to a 26 year military veteran — finds it difficult to cope with both domestic and public dealings, which men traditionally do. She told iguacu:

“I am both the man and the woman in our home. I do both the housework and a man’s job such as grocery shopping and taking my children to the doctor.” — Laila
An Afghan woman in Kandahar, Mirwais hospital, maternity unit. | Photo Credit: Kate Holt/ ICRC

Similarly, Zohra — a 45 year old mother of four — shares the same concern as Laila. Zohra’s husband joined the army when he was 17 years old. Due to insecurity on the roads between provinces, he would get stranded a long way from home and not return for months at a time. In the absence of her husband, Zohra did not feel safe and comfortable alone as a young woman, instead she would ask her mother to come and stay with her.

“The times when my husband was away, my mother would come to Kabul all the way from a village in Kapisa and stay with us. It was not very easy for my mother to travel very often either.” — Zohra

A Colonel who spoke to us, on the condition of anonymity, said security forces often worry if their children have enough food and clothing. They fight on a very low wage, and are not always paid on time. Even when they are paid, they cannot always get home to buy food and clothing for their children. In Afghanistan, men normally do the majority of the shopping for the household.


The Afghan security forces have been suffering heavy losses as they confront strong Taliban insurgency and other armed groups, that now controls more than 40 percent of Afghanistan’s territory.

During the first four months of this year 2,531 Afghan soldiers were killed and 4,238 were wounded. In October, in a series of Humvee attacks, more than 200 security forces were killed within just four days and an army unit was almost completely wiped out.

The frequent and increased attacks on security forces have a negative psychological impact on their wives and families at home. The challenge of juggling between female and male roles pales in comparison to the fear of losing their husbands.

Community Development Council in Badakhshan. | Photo Credit: Aga Khan Foundation/ Sandra Calligaro

For Zohra, attending the funerals of fallen security forces has become a frequent activity. Her husband was based in a post in Northern Afghanistan that came under attack numerous times, and two of her brothers are based in the Helmand province. She said, “it feels like I die and come alive again” every time she hears of attacks in those places.

“When attending funerals we hear of the soldiers’ disfigured bodies. Those are the times my children and I try to convince my husband to leave the army… but if all of us convince our husbands and brothers not to go to war, then who is going to defend our homeland?” — Zohra

Laila expressed her concerns over security forces’ vulnerability when travelling by land in civilian passenger cars. Her husband has been stationed at least in three different provinces — Baghlan, Kunduz, and Takhar — this year. She said:

“From the time he leaves his post until he reaches home, I am always worried because the roads are not safe. The enemy takes them down and searches them at checkpoints. They will not spare an army person if they know.” — Laila

Wives of Afghan security forces do not only worry for the safety of their husbands but they also fear for the safety of their children. Zohra is concerned that due to her husband’s profile, her children may be at risk of being kidnapped. While her children are at school or university, Zohra calls them throughout the day.

Kandahar, Mirwais hospital, paediatric unit. Zulmia is sitting with her eight year old son Mohammed, who is in a coma after contracting meningitis due to an untreated infection. | Photo Credit: Kate Holt/ ICRC

“I have become sensitive to even the slightest sound of the siren or fire; to everything. The moment I hear something; I get up straightaway from my place. Due to high stress, I have high blood pressure and I can’t hear very well.” — Zohra

The colonel who did not want to be named said soldiers at the front line often fear that their children will be orphaned far too soon. He added, “Security forces who are fighting on the front line of war, is as if his entire family is fighting with him.”

There are no government or self initiated support programs dedicated for the welfare of security forces families in Afghanistan. To the contrary, according to the recent U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) report, some widows of ANSF soldiers were forced to perform sexual favors in order to access pension and compensation benefits of their deceased husbands. 

In a patriarchal society and with little support available, the wives of Afghanistan’s security forces, like Laila and Zohra, are fighting their own war at home while their husband fight on the front line.

iguacu’s recommended charity in Afghanistan, Afghanaid, has been working solely in the country for over 30 years with the most vulnerable communities.

Afghanaid recently completed a three year project to give 14,000 very poor women all the training, support and equipment they needed to set up home-based businesses and start generating an income. Women’s conditions are still challenged, but we’re confident that through Afghanaid’s resilience and humanitarian work their situation will improve further overtime.

If you’d like to donate to support the work of Afghanaid or if you’d like to learn more about the conflict in Afghanistan, please visit weareiguacu.org/afghanistan. Your donations will directly fund projects in Afghanistan, and help those in great need.

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