In the biting cold of a Kabul autumn, Hadia Ahmadi, a 43-year-old teacher who lost her job after the Taliban seized Afghanistan’s capital in August, sits by the roadside trying to earn the equivalent of a few cents polishing shoes.
The abrupt withdrawal of foreign aid following the Taliban victory has sent Afghanistan’s fragile economy into free fall, leaving millions facing hunger and making once well-off middle-class families destitute.
“I turned to polishing shoes when I saw that my kids were hungry,” said Ahmadi, a mother of five who did not want to give her family name.
The economy has long stood on shaky foundations, dependent on aid that has now disappeared and with enormous gaps between the Kabul elite and millions living just above the breadline.
After 10 years of teaching, with a husband employed as a cook in a private company and a daughter with a job as a clerk at a government agency, they enjoyed modest prosperity that was swept away in a matter of weeks.
With girls’ schools closed indefinitely, her job was first to go, and her husband and then her daughter lost theirs soon after. A son studying computer science was forced to give up his course when the family could no longer afford the tuition fees.
Roadside displays of household goods for sale have sprung up across Kabul, as families try to raise money to eat. They bear witness to how common Ahmadi’s experiences have become, with people taking once unimaginable steps to survive.
“We are spending days in hunger right now, and for the time being, there is no one in our family who could financially support us all,” she said.
The United Nations has warned of a humanitarian disaster in Afghanistan and is trying to raise $4.5bn to help avoid the worst, but with foreign aid blocked and the bank system near collapse, the economy has been strangled by a lack of cash.
The Taliban famously did not allow women to work outside the home when they were last in power between 1996-2001 and have severely limited employment opportunities for women. But for many like Ahmadi, there is no alternative.
“Some widows are the only food providers for their families, while some women want to financially help their husbands,” she said. “The Taliban must allow women to go to work. They must provide jobs for them, there is no employment right now.”