Immutable Life – Poverty and Indigence in Herat Villages

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I returned on 2nd February 2018, after one year, to two villages in Herat province to interview the families that were part of the Phase II of the Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium (SLRC) program. These are low income communities, where men are still the only breadwinners within households. The main income-generating activity remains farming, alongside stream digging and cleaning, and daily wages are at their lowest, approximately 250 AFN per day. During the wheat harvest in summertime, households are given enough wheat to last for 7 to 9 months in return for labor.

During dry season, it’s common to renew house structures and garden walls, thus providing a short-term income to masons. Migration among the population in this region is a phenomenon pacing at an alarming speed. Iran is a common destination for men in the province looking for seasonal work as the country pays better in terms of wages. Young men migrate to earn money for their wedding and bride or to cover costs for medical treatment for family members, funerals or, in rare cases, for home furniture.

Informal credit is local loan system practice that enables community members to gain access to the amount needed without migrating, though some still use the loan to cover trip costs to Iran. The loan is mostly used to cover daily expenses, and it is requested by close relatives, friends and neighbours at no interest rate, making it a widespread, successful and almost risk-free practice. When borrowing and lending from a familiar person, the agreement entails the return of the money at the earliest convenience, without time constraints. As it is an agreement based on trust, borrowers know that they should return the loan as soon as possible – usually in instalments, sometimes throughout a timespan of years. These agreements are usually sealed verbally, therefore we cannot have access to reliable figures. On the other hand, incase villagers wanted to mortgage their land and garden, they ask one of the village elders to act as witness of a contractual, written agreement where all parties involved sign with their fingerprints.

Informal credit is one of the oldest still surviving practices even among distant relatives, or close family members living in different countries. There is no exploitation and it is sharia-compliant agreement, because the loan is interest-free. In the villages we worked, located miles away from the first city, whenever a family buys goods for their personal use, neighbours and relatives will borrow them too. There is no time constraint between the lender and borrower, and the majority pays back the loan, particularly due to the fact that it is considered a sin not to return it. Because of the tight bonds within the village or community, everyone is aware of each other’s economic situation and will cooperate to support the needy household. The only exception are drug addicts, marginalized by society and their own family.

Women are usually unable to access loans, as it is not common for them to run income-generating activities, yet many manage to borrow money from their close neighbors and relatives for daily needs. For example, if they do not have wheat flour, oil, rice, sugar, salt, dishes, soap and similar items, they will get take out a loan and pay back in the same measure.

As a general observation in these two villages, I have not seen women walking outside their small street, not even a girl over 8 years old playing outside the walls of her home. When I asked a group of women why this was the case, one replied that “after the age of 8, girls become young women and they have to start learning about house chores. After the age of 14, they get married and they have to know how take care of their family members and how to cook and clean their house. This is why it is not allowed for young girls to play outside of their house. Also, older girls are at risk of harassment, abduction and rape.”

In Afghanistan women have always played a very important role within their family, yet their contribution is not visible and therefore not recognized. This was very clear to me in the two villages I visited. These women were, at the times, the only pillar of support for their families. They made sure to continue running their household, even at the cost of borrowing money secretly.


Authors: Massouda Kohistani

Senior Research Assistant Gender

Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit