Photographer Paula Bronstein has been covering Afghanistan since 2001, when she went to document the U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom for Getty Images.
Despite the chaos of war—meant to unseat al-Qaeda and the Taliban—she found herself fascinated by the culture and landscape of the region, and kept returning for the next 14 years to capture the intricacies of the place and its people.
While many photojournalists focused on the frontlines of the conflict, Bronstein often preferred to find quieter stories that showed the war’s lasting impact. That led her to turn her gaze on the more than 2.5 million widows who have become the seldom seen casualties of war.
“Three decades of conflict has produced a vast population of widows with all these problems,” says Bronstein. “This is a story about the legacy of the war.”
Bronstein says there are approximately 50,000 to 70,000 war widows living in Kabul alone, and while wives of fallen soldiers, policemen, or other government employees are entitled to a regular stipend, widows of civilians are only permitted 5,000 Afghanis (about $75) a month.
But even if they are entitled, many widows don’t collect the payments. A U.N. report issued in February 2015 says that most civilians’ widows only received a small, one-time payment instead of a regular stipend, mainly because they don’t know how to navigate the systems needed to access the money.
This means that in a country where the welfare of a woman usually depends on her husband, many Afghan widows are left penniless and powerless.
“Most of them told me they had no education, which makes it difficult to make a living unless it’s begging on the street, or maybe cleaning houses,” says Bronstein. “Life is just one big struggle for them.”
Without money or support, large numbers of Afghan women have ended up in extreme poverty—living in desperate conditions with their children. In some cases, a relative of their husband will marry them out of respect, but many others are left to fend for themselves.
Bronstein’s normal photographic style is to make intimate images that showcase her subjects’ daily lives, but she said getting access to many of Afghanistan’s war widows—and getting permission to shoot them—was often difficult. She worked with local NGOs and fixers to locate the women, but often wasn’t allowed much time to photograph once she was there.
“The fixer would call ahead; he knew what I was doing: I would have a nice initial meeting over tea, which is the way you do things there, and then the biggest problem was the brother-in-law or someone in the family wouldn’t allow me to come back again,” she says. “I’d take some portraits during the first meeting, and I’d get excited, and then the door would slam in my face. And this was very frustrating. And this happened a number of times.”
In addition, she was often told by her fixers that certain neighborhoods they had visited previously were suddenly off-limits. Her own safety was in jeopardy.
“Access and security plays a huge role in what I can do,” says Bronstein. “This turned out to be more of a portrait series because I had so much trouble with accessing the widows more than once.”
Ironically, Bronstein says that while men didn’t want their female relatives photographed, the women themselves were always eager to have their story told.
“The women, every time, wanted to be photographed. They feel—especially woman to woman—that I care about their situation; I want to document it. They are used to nobody caring. I think that if they didn’t have restrictions put on them they would just let me into their world.”
She was able to get slightly better access at a displaced person’s camp in Kabul, where large numbers of widows are living after fleeing violence in Helmund Province. Bronstein describes the living situation there as “squalid, muddy, [and] impoverished.”
“Sanitation there is horrible; they don’t have any heaters,” she says. “It gets very cold, and there has been a lot of death, especially with babies. I can’t even believe they live like this—but they’ve been living like this for years now.”
Bronstein says that in addition to the grief of losing their husbands, widowed women are also at greater risk of emotional problems due to social exclusion, gender-based violence, and the stress of everyday life. But, despite the difficult access, it’s a story she is committed to telling over time.
“I’ve been in and out of the country over so many years, and to me, this is something where things don’t get better for them. They just don’t,” she says.
“The project took a lot longer than I thought it would. But for me I felt like, ‘That’s OK, whatever it takes, I’ll just keep this going.’”
This project was made possible in part by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.