The Widow and the Warlord

This human interest story about a widow I met in Afghanistan also inspired one of the segments in this feature piece on CBC The National.

Parwin seems an unlikely hero at first. She was once, by her own admission, painfully shy. Afraid to even go to her children’s school to talk to the teacher or principal. But what unfolds then is a true David versus Goliath story: the impoverished Afghan widow who took on a local warlord… and won.

Parwin was married at the young age of 14. Life was ok at first, until her husband became addicted to drugs. He couldn’t get a job in Kabul, so he announced he was going to Iran to find work. Promising to send home money, he left Parwin to look after their nine children while she was pregnant with their tenth. A couple of months later they received one letter and some money. To this day they have never heard from him again.

Parwin’s house lies in a mountainous district of Kabul that was once the scene of fierce battles. Burnt-out Soviet tanks still dot the landscape. Desperate for income to support her family, she climbed the hills collecting old bullets, tank shells and other debris of war to sell as scrap metal. It was barely enough to buy leftover scraps of bread to put on the table.

Then CARE came. As part of the Humanitarian Assistance for the Women of Afghanistan (HAWA) program, CARE was giving out livestock and training in animal husbandry to vulnerable women. Parwin certainly qualified, and she received three goats and three sheep. From them she was able to make a decent income selling milk and yoghurt that she made.

Then one day Parwin heard that local women were meeting at a house to study together and learn about their rights. It was one of CARE’s widows advocacy associations. Parwin was very interested and joined the group. The lesson that really caught her attention was that no one could take away her property rights.

When her husband’s father had died, he had left the family a plot of land. However, a powerful local warlord had moved in and claimed the land as his own, as well as surrounding land owned by others in the community. The whole community leaved in fear of him, and even the local authorities had refused to act, telling Parwin that she should give up trying to reclaim her land. She was a woman alone with no man, they said. She had no power.

Emboldened by the knowledge of her rights, Parwin took her family and began building a house on the contested land. For several days they worked, until one afternoon, as Parwin sat down for a rest, a large group of the warlord’s men arrived. They verbally abused her and began to beat her son. When she tried to intervene, they beat her, too. Parwin and her family fled, but she did not give up.

She went straight to Zulakhai, the CARE Community Mobiliser who organized her widow’s group. Zulachai confirmed the unwavering support of the group. A special ‘shura’ meeting of the group was held and it was decided to call for a full community council meeting. All the elders and leaders of the village were there, as was a representative of the warlord. With the backing of her fellow widows, Parwin threatened to take her case to higher authorities in the government. Realising he couldn’t intimidate all the widows, and fearing the involvement of government forces, the warlord backed down. The people could take back the land he had stolen.

Parwin was a village hero, for many others had lost their land as well. More than that, the widows as a whole gained the lasting respect of everyone, who recognised their knowledge and power.  “Before I knew nothing of my rights. This project opened my eyes,” says the formerly shy Parwin. “Now I am not afraid of anyone or anything.”

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