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The Afghani Family In The Early Twenty-first Century

The status of contemporary Afghani families is a patchwork of displacement, poverty, war, unemployment, and lack of basic necessities. As of spring 2002, the United Nations and aid agencies report 5.3 million very vulnerable people at risk of severe malnutrition. Families struggle to survive in an agricultural economy dependent on opium cultivation ravaged by war and drought. Approximately 350,000 internally displaced individuals and an estimated five million refugees in Iran and Pakistan suggest profound structural changes for Afghani families. The majority of refugees in Pakistan are Pushtuns, and most refugees in Iran are Tajiks and Hazarahs.

In Iran, only a small fraction of refugees live in camps. The early refugee families are intact and, despite economic difficulties, are living together. Some are second generation and have never been to Afghanistan. The majority are integrated in three areas in central and eastern cities. This group benefits from the national health care, and their children attend public schools. The government and aid agencies provide health screening and vaccination for children and free reproductive health services for women. Distrustful of madrasses, the Iranian government frowns upon private Afghani schools and provides public education as much as possible.

The refugees arriving after 1995 face more problems. They came in small groups and have had trouble joining other family members. Accordingly, female-headed households are more common among the later refugees. Another incoming group consists of unmarried young men attracted to the booming construction industry.

The Pakistani government has taken a different approach to Afghan refugees. Pakistan helped the Taliban faction and was one of the three countries recognizing them as a legitimate government (the other two being Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates). Although some of the early refugees to Pakistan became integrated into society, many live in about 300 refugee villages set up by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The early refugees in Pakistan, like those in Iran, consist of more intact families. Unlike Iran, the Pakistani government encouraged madrasses and military camps to train Taliban fighters. There they absorbed a potent revolutionary ideology constructed of Pushtun ethnic supremacy, Sunni Islam, and traditional patriarchy.

On September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against the United States led to massive destruction and fatalities in New York City and Washington, DC. The group responsible was perceived to be hiding in Afghanistan. The U.S.-led bombing of Afghanistan caused the massive movement of people at borders to enter Iran or Pakistan. As of spring 2002, the Taliban had been removed, the U.S. forces were in the country, and a new interim government had taken office. Two women serve as cabinet members of this new government. A voluntary repatriation program arranged by the UNHCR and the Iranian and Pakistani governments is underway. About half million refugees from Pakistan and approximately 80,000 from Iran have returned.

The picture of Afghani family is one of individuals holding to extended family and lineage when possible, but less than half of the Afghani population can do so. The UNHCR is involved in the largest human assistance program, started on September 24, 2001. Life expectancy is forty-four years, and one out of four children dies before reaching the age of five. Afghanistan has the highest density of landmines of any country in the world. Both the Taliban and the Northern Alliance recruited, sometimes by force, young boys into their armed forces.

The unintended consequence of the war has been the broadening of women's views about their roles. By various accounts, there are close to one million widows or separated women who are the heads of households. Afghani women refugees, witnessing Iranian and Pakistani women's educational and occupational achievements, have acquired new expectations for their daughters and themselves. In Iran, Afghani girls attending primary school outnumber Afghani boys. The aid agencies' policies are a factor in this: For example, under the Oil for Girls program, a family receives a gallon of cooking oil for every month that a girl stays in school. Afghani women have acquired a sense of autonomy by dealing on their own with aid agencies or government bureaucracies of the host nations.

Intratribal or bicultural marriages have increased. Nevertheless, this is particularly problematic when Afghani men marry Iranian or Pakistani women. Because a woman carries her husband's legal status, these men do not become citizens of their wives' respective countries, though their children are registered to both parents. This creates problems for Iranian families when women unfamiliar with the law marry Afghani men. In contrast, Afghani women marrying Iranian or Pakistani men do not face such a problem. The latter is less common.

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Marriage and Family EncyclopediaMarriage: Cultural AspectsAfghanistan - Historical Background, Continuity And Change In Traditional Afghani Family, The Afghani Family In The Early Twenty-first Century