Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kuchis Struggling to Survive

Nomad women try to hold families together under tough conditions.
By Salima Ghafari

In western Kabul’s Khushal Khan, a cheerless district with little but dust and thorns, Suraya lives in her tattered tent, empty except for a plastic sheet covering the floor.


“The tent in which we live is very old. When the wind blows, a lot of dust comes inside. My children’s eyes are always irritated. I don’t know what to do,” she said, as her husband lay sleeping inside.


There is nothing in the way of comfort for 25-year-old Suraya, her husband and six children who are among numerous Kuchis - nomadic Pashtuns who eke out a precarious living as livestock herders - who’ve settled in Khushal Khan.


Tough and feisty, these Kuchi women have little of the demure demeanour of other Afghan women. They surround this IWPR reporter, clamouring to tell their stories and voice their complaints.


“There was a woman in our area, she had a bad pregnancy,” said one who refused to give her name. “Her husband was unemployed, with no money to take her to the hospital, so she died.”


Waresa is 20 and already has three children. “We have so many problems, I don’t even know where to begin,” she said. “We have no water, no medicine, no work, and my sons play outside in the burning sun rather than going to school.”


“Why can’t the government pay attention to us?” she wailed. “Why can’t they save us from this terrible life?”


Muslema, 22, is wearing black and pink dress and a long veil. She has been married just six months.


“My husband is jobless. I have been sick for a long time, but we don’t have money for treatment. I don’t know what to do,” she said, sitting in a corner of her tent, angry and desperate “Our president - I don’t even know his name – hasn’t done anything to help us. Aren’t we Afghans too? The government is just helping those who live in the city and have homes.”


Afghanistan’s Kuchis have been hardest hit by the catastrophic events of recent years. They’ve been displaced by conflict, their grazing grounds sown with landmines and their crops shrivelled by the crippling drought of the past seven years.


In the latest official census, conducted in the late Seventies, people classified as Kuchis – which means “nomads” rather than a separate ethnic designation - numbered approximately 3.7 million. But no one can say with any accuracy how many still exist Afghanistan, as large numbers have been forced into refugee camps across the border in Pakistan or been assimilated into urban culture as their way of life slowly disappears.


A preliminary count puts their number now at no more than 1.5 million, and the true figure may be as low as 600,000.


In the new parliament, which will be elected in September, Kuchis have been allotted ten seats of their own, three of which will be reserved for women. They say this is not enough, and that it will give them very little power in the 249-seat body. For the hard-pressed nomads, this is just another sign that they are being ignored or marginalised by the central government.


Promises of mobile clinics, schools, and other facilities for Kuchis have gone unfulfilled, they say, leaving them poor, sick, and uneducated.


Kuchi women bear the brunt of the burden. With little access to medical care, they have an extremely high rate of maternal and infant mortality, and illnesses related to reproductive health are common.


“Neither the government nor the women’s ministry have done anything to help us,” said 25-year-old Zakhela, gazing at her mentally ill husband lying in the dust nearby with chickens pecking around his head. “We have no clinics, no place to call home, no drinking water. No one is thinking about the lives of Kuchi women.”


Massouda Jalal, the minister for women’s affairs, confirmed the dire conditions facing Kuchi women, but insisted that her ministry was doing its best to help. The ministry, she said, had conducted a survey documenting the problems and had passed the results on to the government.


“We handed over the reports … to the Council of Ministers,” she said. “After the reports were ratified, the council tasked respective ministries to solve their problems.”


Mohammad Omar Babrakzai, deputy minister at the ministry of borders and tribal affairs, agreed that Kuchis constitute the poorest class of society.


He said a commission consisting of eight ministries was formed two years ago in order to improve education for Kuchi children. The body decided to establish primary schools for Kuchis in all central provinces, but progress has been slow.


“We received permission last month to establish primary schools in central provinces and now we are in contact with the finance ministry to provide us with the budget to establish the schools,” he said.


Babrakzai’s commission is also attempting to address health problems.


“We are in touch with the health ministry to establish some mobile clinics along Kuchi migration routes,” he said.


According to Babrakzai, non-governmental organisations are also attempting to help. But Kuchi women are adamant that NGOs have done nothing for them.


“Why have these foreigners come to our country when they are not doing anything to help us?” said Suraya. “We were very happy that peace has been ensured in our country, [but] now we see that the no one is doing anything for us.”


Huma Sultani, head of the women’s development section at the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, was reluctant to comment on the plight of the Kuchis.


“We do not support just one nation or tribe,” she said. “We support all Afghans.” Sultani said that no Kuchi woman has yet come to the commission to complain about infringement of their rights.


“If they come, we may be able to help them,” she said. “All Afghans have the same rights under the constitution.”


Salima Ghafari is an IWPR trainee based in Kabul.


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