Gulsha is a mother, a wife, a carer, a model worker and sole bread earner of a family of seven. But in a society that first values male leadership and patriarchal drive, she is one of many unsung female stalwarts who must just keep going against the odds.
Gusha's husband has suffered from an undiagnosed mental condition for ten years. Now she is the head of the family. (Photos: Rahimi)
It is three in the afternoon and Gulsha just got back from her cleaning job at Balkh University's faculty of medicine. Exhausted from work, she puts her groceries away and changes clothes.
But she barely has time for a tea, before more work comes calling. The kids demand her attention while playing, her husband is shouting at her, and the shouting will continue until she makes him dinner. A once proud warrior who was injured in battle in the civil war of the 1990s, Gulsha's husband suffers from an undiagnosed psychological disorder and must be constantly tended to.
So for the past decade, Gulsha, 45, has been the sole bread earner in the family of seven.
“I do not have anybody to bring in an income, or help me with my kids' school,” Gulsha says, not even pausing from her house duties to talk. “My salary is not enough to support my family. Sometimes, professors and students at the medical faculty financially help me."
Gulsha's cleaning job earns the family 3,000 afghanis a month, less than 60 dollars. With no fit husband or sons to help her, the burden is taking a heavy toll on her efforts to keep the family afloat.
"Now, I have a back pain. When I was healthy, my daughters and I helped with people's laundry, it brought in a little extra income. Now that I suffer for the pain on my back, I can no longer do the laundry.”
Gulsha: a poster face for Afghan women struggling aginst the odds.
Gulsha is a prime example, a poster face for many Afghan women who find themselves ostracised and struggling because of conflicts and family calamities. Resources available to help them are limited, and what exists is usually directed at countering physical and sexual abuse. The fundamental emergency of being barely unable to provide for the family without a man is too big to address still, and she doesnt fall into an existing target group for local initiatives to help women.
“We support women who are vulnerable to violence but we do not have employment opportunities,” said Fawzia Nawabi, the deputy of advocacy and development of women's rights at the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission in Balkh Province.
“The biggest achievement of this commission is the creation of ‘peace houses’ where needy women get support and help,” says Nawabi. Yet such houses only cater to the most vulnerable women in society, passing over thousands of mothers and wives like Gulsha who staunchly struggle on every day.
Gulsha’s husband lost a leg and a hand while fighting in the civil war for the Uzbek warlord General Dostum. But when the Taliban ascendancy was confirmed in the late 1990s, he gave her these orders: “Destroy my uniform, burn it. Return my Kalashnikov (AK-47) and my pistol [to my commander]. It is enough, I worked for him loyally for these many years. I cannot work for him anymore.”
Gulsha at work at Balkh University.
Then in the early 2000s, her husband’s mental deterioration followed his physical frailty, forcing him out of the job market. Fearing the Taliban would find out about his allegiance to their enemy General Dostum, he burned all papers and traces of his past. Now Gulsha struggles to prove what happened to him.
Her husband's shouting makes her feel sad and miserable, yet she still takes care of him. When she talks about him, a visible discomfort appears on her face, yet it is always coupled with kindness.
“I took him to the doctor for treatment several times, but the doctor could not treat him,” says Gulsha. “I do not have an elder son,” she adds, lamenting the lack of what is prized as a prime family asset.
Her strength of character and diligence have not gone unnoticed, however. “Gulsha is a really had-working woman,” says Fazah Ahmad Bawar, dean of the Balkh Medical faculty that she helps to keep clean. “Despite having been through many problems in her life, she performs her daily assigned tasks honestly."
And despite the burden on her, Gulsha still has a plan. She works at one of the province’s leading education institutes, but she cannot read or write. But she hopes that by working without end she can educate her five children so they will avoid her fate.
“My daughters go to school,” says Gulsha proudly. But it will be some time before her two youngest daughters (the eldest already married and left home in 2002) can help sustain the three-bedroom house they live in.