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Amid conflict and a pandemic, millions in Afghanistan face food insecurity

A woman and a small boy stand outside of a clay and wood home.

All photos: CARE

All photos: CARE

Zainab, a mother of two, says she struggles to feed her family as food prices soar in Afghanistan.

Zainab, 24, lives with her husband and two children in a settlement for internally displaced people in Kabul, Afghanistan. The couple was getting by on his work as a day laborer and her work raising chickens and selling eggs until coronavirus arrived.

“I can’t praise our life before the coronavirus, but we were doing well for ourselves. My husband and I were working to provide a good life to our son and then expecting a new child,” she says.

When the pandemic hit, people panicked. Prices soared, and food became unaffordable for millions. “People started hoarding and storing unnecessary amounts of food,” Zainab says. “The first few months were the toughest.”

Afghanistan was already in the throes of a serious food crisis brought on by ongoing conflict, extreme weather, and high food prices. Coronavirus compounded the already dire situation. Now 13.15 million people — 42% of the country’s population — are facing hunger.

Zainab’s husband lost his job as soon as the government announced lockdowns. The reduced income combined with rising food prices made feeding their family difficult.

of Afghanistan’s population is facing hunger

“I have a three-month-old daughter and I don’t know where the next meal will come from, when the virus will end, or how will the prices change,” she says.

According to the U.N., the number of people worldwide facing extreme hunger could nearly double before the end of the year. Those living in conflict settings like Afghanistan, where violence affects their ability to produce and access food, are particularly at risk.

“Putting food on the table is getting harder and harder and with winter coming, we are very worried for the people of Afghanistan,” says Marianne O’Grady, CARE Afghanistan’s Deputy Country Director. “For women, the situation is even more difficult. In Afghanistan, generally men eat first due to cultural norms, so when there’s not enough food to go around, it’s the women who miss out.”

A recent survey by CARE revealed that 41% of women reported lack of food as one of COVID-19’s key impacts on their lives, compared to 30% of men, reflecting deeply entrenched gender inequalities. In addition to eating last and least during times of crisis, women also often act as shock absorbers, taking on more unpaid work, acting as caregivers, and becoming the breadwinners for their household.

Through a CARE program, Zainab learned how to raise chickens and run an egg business.
The business is helping her family earn an income during the pandemic.

Zainab has been the family’s sole provider since the pandemic’s onset. Before the lockdowns, she received 40 chickens as part of CARE’s LAMP (Livelihood Advancement of Marginalized Populations) program focused on women’s economic empowerment, and participated in business and marketing training, which helped her kickstart a business.

As food prices soared, she was forced to sell 10 of her chickens and eat five others in order to survive. Selling the eggs of the remaining chickens has so far been enough to keep her family afloat and fed. She also runs a literacy group at her home for other displaced women in the community. It doesn’t pay much, she says, but it helps.

“We can’t spend our money on gloves, masks or hand sanitizers. We can’t afford to keep ourselves safe.”

“If it weren’t for the chickens… we would be fighting for our survival,” Zainab says.

For families like Zainab’s, putting food on the table can come at the expense of fully protecting themselves from the coronavirus.

“We can’t spend our money on gloves, masks or hand sanitizers…. We can’t afford to keep ourselves safe,” she says.

There are over 47,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Afghanistan as of December 7, but due to limited testing, experts say the real figure is likely much higher. Afghanistan, which has a critically weak health system, has only 300 ventilators and is ill-equipped to deal with outbreaks.

“Everyone is afraid,” Zainab says, adding that her 5-year-old son hides in his room from visitors like her students and keeps a distance from his father who leaves the house.

“It would be ideal if my husband could find a job he can do despite the spread of the coronavirus and we are both able to help our family.”

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