Confronting the Struggle of Afghanistan's War Widows

Bibi Aisha, 60, has five children and lost her husband during the Taliban regime 19 years ago. She has diabetes and lives with her extended family in Kabul. She used to beg but now depends on her son, who is a laborer. "It is not good to be a widow, it has no benefits, we are on our own," she says. Image by Paula Bronstein. Afghanistan, 2015.

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. Image by Paula Bronstein. Afghanistan, 2015.

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. Image by Paula Bronstein. Afghanistan, 2015.

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. Image by Paula Bronstein. Afghanistan, 2015.

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. Image by Paula Bronstein. Afghanistan, 2015.

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. Image by Paula Bronstein. Afghanistan, 2015.

Sima begs outside a bread shop in Kabul, waiting for handouts. She said her husband died as a soldier with the Afghan National Army. Image by Paula Bronstein. Afghanistan, 2015.

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. Image by Paula Bronstein. Afghanistan, 2015.

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. Image by Paula Bronstein. Afghanistan, 2015.

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. Image by Paula Bronstein. Afghanistan, 2015.

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.

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.”

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 civilian’s 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.

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 is 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.”

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.

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.’”