What happens to Afghanistan’s left-behind women as the Taliban rises?

Separated from her family after an attempt to flee failed, Tahira is among a growing number of women left struggling and vulnerable in a country where lone mothers are harshly judged.

On a bitterly cold day, Tahira* sits in her rented room in Kabul. She has a husband and three young children, but the last time the family were all together was in 2018 – the day they tried to escape Afghanistan.

Insecurity in their town in Maidan Wardak province led Tahira, 27, to try to flee to Turkey, via Iran, with her family. But when the time came, only her husband, son and seven-year-old daughter made it.

Tahira and her six-year-old daughter weren’t so lucky. They were caught and arrested by Iranian police on the Iran–Turkey border, and sent back to Afghanistan.

“My daughter’s clothes got stuck on the fence. We then weren’t fast enough to make it past in time,” Tahira says.

“It was heartbreaking to see my family split up. It was especially hard to part with my three-year-old son, who needed his mum the most.”

Countless Afghan men have now fled the country, seeking work and safety. But the lives of the women left behind deteriorate without male protection, particularly as the Taliban continue to tighten their grip on Afghanistan.

A recent poll found 41% of Afghans want to leave the country – a record high. This rises to nearly 50% among women, reflecting Afghanistan’s status as one of the toughest countries in the world to be female.

But putting plans in place to leave can be an impossible task, especially for women. With little education or money of their own – 80% of Afghan women are out of the workforce and 91% have only a primary education or less – the chances of women finding work elsewhere are slim. Those who do attempt to leave often risk everything.

A month after the separation, Tahira tried again to make it to Turkey. She borrowed money from relatives, and this time made it as far as Iran.

“Among the groups of people heading there, I was the only woman. After many hours passing through the dry landscape, I suddenly realised that the smuggler was taking us in a different direction from the rest of the group,” she said.

When she yelled for help, the smuggler told her: “It’s okay, I’m not going to force you to have sex with me if you don’t want to.” But Tahira feared she would be raped. “Not just by the smuggler, but by a group of them. So I had to end my journey. I preferred to get arrested by the Iranian police than be raped.”

When the police found Tahira and her daughter, they were sent back to Afghanistan.

Tahira and her daughter now live alone in Kabul. “No one here supports me financially. I struggle a lot and life is damn hard for me – everyone is judging me as I live alone without my husband.”

“Every night, I can’t sleep. I just think about my son. And when I do finally sleep, I dream he is calling me.

“I pray my family can reunite as soon as possible and that I can hug my son again. More than anything I want the chance to see my children and husband, so all of us can eat together, laugh happily and simply be a family again.”

Pari, from Maidan Wardak province, is also separated from family. For a long time, she and her four daughters lived alone.

“After a while, the neighbours found out we were living without a male family member, so I was scared something bad would happen to my daughters. In the end, I had to marry one of them off at an early age. My other daughter is just 16 and already engaged.

“When I see young girls my daughters’ age on their way to school, my heart breaks. I wish they could’ve had the same opportunity as those girls.”

Pari has four daughters and a son. Her husband died six years ago. In 2015, Pari took her children and left, like Tahira, heading for Iran, then Turkey.

Only her son made it to Turkey. The rest of the family were caught and sent back to Afghanistan.

“All four of my daughters were young when we returned to Afghanistan. It was really difficult to find a house to rent as everyone was asking for a male family member,” she says.

She couldn’t sleep for weeks; their accommodation wasn’t secure, and she feared for her daughters’ safety.

“I am just about able to support them financially through tailoring work,” says Pari. “I really hope one day we can reunite with my son and that I will no longer have to worry about the safety of my daughters.”

According to the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, there are almost 2.5 million registered refugees from Afghanistan – the second-largest refugee population in the world. As the Taliban claws back power, and as violence continues to tear through the country, the numbers will rise.

While men account for the majority of the refugees, more young women are now leaving in search of a new life.

Educated women have a better chance. But mothers like Tahira and Pari are left behind, often widowed, with children scattered across the world. None of them know when they’ll see their families again.