By Ritu Mahendru
April 09, 2019
Every woman in
this country has a hundred owners. It’s always been like that. Fathers,
brothers, uncles, neighbours. They all believe they have the right to speak on
our behalf and make decisions for us. That’s why our stories are never heard
but buried with us underground.
– Sahra Mani
Who Are the Kuchis?
Kuchis, traditionally nomadic communities,
are considered to be one of the poorest and most marginalized groups in
Afghanistan. Over the centuries, Kuchis, whose numbers are estimated from
300,000 to 3 million, have pursued a migratory life, herding caravans of sheep,
goats, and camels around the country. However, decades of conflict and drought
have increasingly forced Afghanistan’s Kuchis to abandon their traditional
lifestyle and relocate to settled areas.
Some of the destitute Kuchi pastoralists
have lost their livestock and sought to settle permanently and semi-permanently
in unregulated areas, resulting in conflict with local residents and commanders
due to the issues around land ownership and water access. With many living in
refugee camps and temporary accommodations, the majority of Kuchis suffer
stigma, exclusion, and discrimination at the institutional, political, and
social level wherein their identity is questioned and misunderstood.
The National Vulnerability Analysis Report
of Afghanistan states that Kuchi communities (both nomadic and semi-sedentary)
have limited access to health, education, and livelihood standards since the
government doesn’t collect disaggregated data on Kuchis. The indicators are far
worse for Kuchi girls and women as compared to other poor women in the country.
The enervating poverty faced by Kuchis has a direct impact on girls in
achieving social and well-being indicators.
Women Kuchis: The Ones Left Behind
Standing behind a roughly painted turquoise
door, an 8-year-old girl, Lida, peeks out when she notices a group of Afghan
officials and expats speaking to her father and brother. She exchanges glances
and smiles, inviting herself out of a roughly structured home that can only
belong to a nomadic family.
Unable to conceal her excitement, Lida
eagerly and carelessly takes a swift step outside the door. But then her
14-year-old brother, Tariq, standing outside with his brothers and uncles,
gives her a sharp, stern look with bloodshot eyes and clenches his teeth,
muttering sullenly, “How dare you – get back in.” Lida quietly lowers her eyes
and hides behind the door.
Her mother, Karima, appears and drags her
inside a large rundown, ramshackle house. She receives two slaps on her left
cheek while her 10-month-old sister, Gzifa, who is crawling, gets kicked in the
face for being in the way. Gzifa cries out but no support or help is provided.
Karima shuts the door behind her, kicking Gzifa almost absentmindedly again and
leaving her in the dusty courtyard to cry.
Ethnically, the vast majority of Kuchis are
Pashtun, who have stricter gender rules. Girls as young as 8 are not allowed to
leave their house without the permission of a male member of the family, which
includes brothers as young as 10. In most cases a male member of the family
would need to accompany her. In general, girls are not allowed to go and seek
education. They get married and bear children early.
Lida moved with her father and two uncles,
their 9 wives, and 43 children to Parwan as sedentary Kuchis as they lost the
majority of their livestock due to drought and conflict. Her brothers go to
school provided by the local government. However, they don’t attend classes
regularly due to corporal punishment and the quality of education. The brothers
spend most of their time hanging out with other boys in the neighbourhood.
Access to Education and Early Marriage
When asked if Lida goes to school, Hamid,
her long-bearded father, breathes heavily and grunts, “No, she has to help her
mother fetch water and assists in cooking.”
The National Vulnerability Analysis Report
also highlights a significant gender disparity in net primary school enrolment,
especially among Kuchis.
“While education indicators for girls in
Afghanistan are improving, for Kuchi girls they have remained stagnant due to
stricter traditional gender roles, insecurity and child marriage,” the Kuchi
representative says. “Many girls are cast-off to resolve dispute with
landowners and conflict between families. Girls as young as 7 can be married to
men 30-40 years older.”
Hamid announces that “Lida will be married
of before she is 11,” proudly pointing toward her brothers. “They will take
care of everything,” he says, at which her brothers’ chests expand and
The Kuchi representative, who has asked to
remain anonymous, asks Lida what she wanted: she coyly and shyly responds,
“Yes, I want to get married.” The representative shaking his head, tells me
that “she doesn’t even know the meaning of marriage. They are doing it just for
Lida has 21 other sisters, six of whom are
married. Two of them, aged 13 and 14, were exchanged to resolve conflict with a
landowner as Hamid’s family tried accessing clean water.
Access to Safe Water and Sexual
The Danish Committee for Aid to Afghanistan
in 2018 reported that only 45.5 percent of Afghans have access to safe drinking
water. A large percentage of the population spends 4-7 hours to collect their
drinking water from ditches, canals, and rivers, which often are polluted, and
carry water-borne diseases.
In many Kuchi groups, women are responsible
for fetching water for household consumption. Because of the need to keep herds
and encampments away from villages and cultivated land, women often have to
walk considerable distances to collect water and may encounter men from outside
their communities when doing so.
The Kuchi representative suggests, “the important
contribution of women to the pastoral economic system is often forgotten and
Access to water is a controversial issue
for nomadic and semi-sedentary Kuchis, especially if they do not have access to
land. They end up relying on common property sources, such as rivers, streams,
and canals, or, alternatively negotiate to buy water from private or
community-owned water sources. When water is accessed without the permission of
a landowner it could potentially spark life-threatening situations: blood
feuds, disputes, and serious conflicts that could result in murders with
impunity. This could lead to exchange of girls and women to resolve conflicts,
as happened to Lida’s sisters.
In addition, many young girls and women on
their way to fetch water become subjects of sexual and gender-based violence.
Karima recounts that her sister was raped
when she went to fetch water: “She had gone with other girls to get water but
she is a bit slow and is ill. She talks to herself. One of my neighbours suggested
that he would drop her back home when he took her to a secluded area and raped
When asked if they reported the case,
Karima says no. “We didn’t [report] because she brought shame to our family.”
Karima didn’t know where her sister was anymore.
She gravelly whispered in Pashto, “Bale me
mar pase,” meaning “good riddance.”
Sexual and Reproductive Health
There is no disaggregated data to show the
sexual and reproductive health (SRH) vulnerabilities faced by Kuchi women, who
are constantly on the move and lack SRH rights support. There is a lack of data
and information that clearly describes the challenges Kuchi women face.
One of Hamid’s wives, Jamila, explained: “I
have been pregnant 16 times and only 5 of them survived. It’s all up to God. I
am tired but he doesn’t understand. I lie there like a dry cow.”
Jamila, who suffers from debilitating
stress, looks weak, frail, and ill. Hamid doesn’t understand why is she always
ill and keeps crying.
“I need to take her to the Shrine again.
She is always ill and sad. I don’t know what’s wrong with her,” he says.
Kuchi Afghan women face a number of
challenges and deprivations. They are denied access to education, married off
as children, raped, and exchanged to settle disputes.
Yet policymakers and international donor
agencies in Afghanistan have inadequately addressed vulnerabilities faced by
Kuchi girls and women. They remain an almost invisible group in policy
practices and dialogues. There is no ready information available on the lived
realities of Kuchi women who have experienced or faced gender- and sexual-based
violence, lack health services and education, and are married earlier. The only
information on Kuchi girls and women is currently anecdotal.
While the Kuchis are becoming more
politically aware and are exercising their voting rights, there is a need for
the government to go beyond political process and be engaged in their social
While evolving policies have increasingly
aimed to include nomadic groups, an overemphasis on mobility has distracted
policymakers from going beyond infrastructure when Kuchi needs are also social
Ritu Mahendru is a freelance journalist with a Ph.D. in sociology. She
writes about gender, race, sexuality, migration, and conflict. Her work has
appeared in Open Democracy, the Middle-East Eye, and Arab Weekly.