Female-headed households bear the brunt of Covid-19 as livelihood gaps increase


Veronica Kamanga-Njikho & Qandigul Tajik
Women in Afghanistan
21 April 2020

Herat, Afghanistan, April 2020: Marzia (not her real name), a 35-year-old widow and a mother of four children aged between 3 and 12, is one of several women bearing the brunt of the Covid-19 pandemic.


Herat is a melting pot; a province with a 47.6% poverty level, already hard-hit by the effects of protracted conflict and drought, and host to thousands of internal displaced persons from neighboring provinces and returnees from Iran. It is now the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic in Afghanistan, with over 322 confirmed cases as of 17 April 2020.


“I got a rude awakening some weeks ago, with the declaration of immediate movement restrictions in Herat city.  I suddenly found myself at home basically with no work. This means no income for food and other amenities for my household.  I was not ready for this, as I depend on my daily tips to take care of my family,” Marzia narrates sadly. 


Marzia works at a local beauty salon that has now been closed for three weeks, following the abrupt movement restriction imposed by local government due to growing public health concerns. “This salon has been my only source of income since I lost my husband four years ago”, she says.  With no job and no income Marzia can no longer support her household.


Marzia is not alone. The Covid-19 crisis poses a serious threat to women’s engagement in economic activities, especially in informal sectors where women constitute 55 per cent of the work force. Abrupt travel bans and lockdowns are increasing gender livelihood gaps and creating an adverse impact on food security in households. In Afghanistan, it must be noted, whilst unemployment of the head of household is correlated with higher poverty, more than half of the households with a fully-employed household head also live below the poverty line. 


mother and daughter


"The Covid-19 crisis poses a serious threat to women’s engagement in economic activities, especially in informal sectors where women constitute 55 per cent of the work force."



Many world leaders have warned that women and girls must not be overlooked as the world responds to the greatest health crisis in a century.


The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted access to critical services and has diminished livelihood sources for households.  These concerns have been echoed by the United Nations Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, who, in his appeal in early April for a global ceasefire, emphasized that women and children are among the most vulnerable in times of war, and face the highest risk of suffering devastating losses from the pandemic.


When tackling the devastating social and economic dimensions of the crisis, a focus should be on the most vulnerable by designing policies that, among other things, support providing health and unemployment insurance, and social protections, while also bolstering businesses to prevent bankruptcies and job losses, ’ Guterres emphasized.


woman and child walking on the road in afghanistan


Marzia has been connected to the food programme managed by the office of the Governor through the Directorate of Labor and Social Affairs (DOLSA). She has also received initial water sanitation and hygiene kits with soap and hand sanitizer from UNICEF through the Directorate of Women Affairs and selected women network in Herat, which has benefitted some 1,050 women. 


The Afghanistan Living Conditions Survey 2016-17 recorded a sharp deterioration in welfare of the Afghan population. The proportion of the population living below the national poverty line increased from 34 percent in 2007 to 55 percent in 2017. This increase is experienced across the country; in urban and rural areas. With the prediction of the worst global depression in decades, the Covid 19 pandemic is  a socio economic catastrophe for countries like Afghanistan.


Currently, UNICEF and its partners are activating a welfare rapid assessment to better understand the comprehensive needs of women and their families, considering that a crisis like Covid-19 affects women and men differently.


“UNICEF is committed to ensuring gender equality is at the heart of our COVID-19 frontline service delivery and system strengthening support across health, nutrition water, sanitation, hygiene and protection sectors, as well as our advocacy, risk communication and community engagement efforts,” said Aboubacar Kampo, UNICEF Representative in Afghanistan.