‘They came for my daughter’: Afghan single mothers face losing children under Taliban

Life for single mothers in Afghanistan has always been marred by stigma and poverty. Now with the Taliban in control, what few protections they had have disappeared

The day after Mazar-i-Sharif, the provincial capital of Balkh province, fell to the Taliban on 14 August, gunmen came for Raihana’s* six-year-old daughter.

Widowed when her husband was murdered by Taliban forces in 2020, Raihana had been raising her child as a single mother. After her husband’s death she had fought her in-laws for custody of her daughter and won, thanks to the rights she had under Afghan civil law – which state that single women can keep their children if they can provide for them financially.

Now, with her city in Taliban hands, Raihana was alone.

“The day after the fall of Mazar-i-Sharif, my brother in-law showed up at my father’s house, where I lived, with Taliban fighters demanding to give them my daughter,” Raihana told the Guardian.

Raihana was lucky. She and her daughter were not at home when the armed men arrived. As soon as she heard, she took her child and fled Mazar-i-Sharif for Kabul.

“They wanted to take my daughter away from me,” she said. “We hid in flour sacks in the back of a truck and when the driver found us we begged him to take us to Kabul.”

Once in the Afghan capital, Raihana went from embassy to embassy seeking help. Eventually her sister, who lives in the UK, was able to get them both on a flight out of Afghanistan to safety. They are now in Manchester.

“I managed to leave Afghanistan after so much hardship. I’m so happy that my daughter is with me,” Raihana says. “I thank the UK government.”

Life for single mothers in Afghanistan has always been marred by stigma, poverty and marginalisation. Now with the Taliban in control, what few protections they had have disappeared and their situation is increasingly desperate.

Yalda, a 28-year-old, single mother of three, is in hiding in Kabul as her ex-husband hunts for her children.

“My ex-husband is a member of the Taliban now and is trying to take my children away,” she said. “My father’s house is surrounded. They’re constantly harassing them, looking for me and my children. He wants to use any opportunity he gets.”

Yalda* says she was terrorised by her husband for years. “My father arranged the marriage when I was only 14 years old. I didn’t know anything about being married – I was still a child myself,” she says.

Soon afterwards Yalda fell pregnant and she had two more children in the years that followed. She also discovered that her husband was a member of the Taliban. She says their marriage was one of violence and abuse.

“He wouldn’t let our daughter go to school. He would beat me with his belt when I would insist [that she go to school]. My body is covered in marks of his violence,” she says.

In 2014, Yalda decided that she had had enough. “On a winter night, when my husband was with the Taliban, I took our children and ran away. It was very cold and dark but I managed to escape with the help of our neighbour. I took my children and got to a car which was going to Kabul.”

Yalda fled to Pakistan, returning to Afghanistan only when her husband was arrested and jailed by Afghan security forces. When she returned she was granted custody of her children, but now with the Taliban back in power, she is terrified of what will happen. Still in hiding, she is hoping her application for a visa to the US will be successful but has no idea how she will be able to leave.

“I’ve endured so much because of my children since 2014,” she says. “I have tolerated a lot of pain to provide for them. I was both a mother and a father for them.

“I will never abandon them but I need help to keep them with me.”

*names have been changed

• Now more than ever, Afghan women need a platform to speak for themselves. As the Taliban’s return haunts Afghanistan, the survival of Rukhshana Media depends on ​readers’ help.​ If you can help, go to ​this crowdfunding page.

Zahra Joya for Rukhshana Media

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