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Cash for Food
Siblings Azizullah, 18, Shukria, 16, and Rahmatullah, 10, are sitting close to their mother, Najiba, on the floor of their one-room house in Jawzjan, Afghanistan. The floor is made of mud but very little of it shows. Plastic rice bags, ripped wide open to serve as carpets, cover almost all of it. This bare-bone house, bought with the dowry money Najiba received when her eldest daughter got married, is all this family has.
A small house — diminished even more by the heavy air of sadness that seems to cling to its walls — is all they have. Within the last ten years, they have lost a husband and father, because "there wasn't enough food," according to Najiba. Three other children - the siblings of her remaining ones - died because of the same reason.
They eat only bread and tea and she worries about the same thing happening again. "I can't afford to buy sugar, oil or rice, and oftentimes, I have to beg the neighbors for food," she says. "I'm always worried someone else is going to starve to death."
As their mother speaks, Azizullah, Shukria and Rahmatullah listen, their eyes distant, and their bodies languid. They are tired, their mother says.
She does everything she could to support them, washing her neighbors' laundry and cleaning their houses. She also spins thread for weaving, altogether earning no more than two hundred to three hundred Afghanis a week, the equivalent of three to four Euros. "Not enough to support four people," she says.
Even if she wants to work harder, she can't. In rural parts of Afghanistan, women are not encouraged to work outside their homes. It is considered shameful to mix with men to whom they are not related.
Azizullah, the eldest child, has just graduated from high school, and tries to help augment his mother's income, working as a laborer when he can find "an odd day's employment".
Despite these challenges, Najiba insists that Shukria and Rahmatullah go to school. She says, "I want my children to learn. I want them to have a better future," even as she admits that "they are often hungry when they go to school and have to ask for food from their classmates."
"They often just come home after school and go right to sleep," she adds.
The family received a temporary reprieve from their hardships when Najiba, considered to be one of the poorest in the village, was chosen to receive an unconditional cash allowance as part of an ECHO grant for Emergency Food Assistance. Save the Children implemented the program.
She received 3,000 Afghanis a month under the emergency funding scheme, which made a huge difference in her and her children's lives. She was able to buy extra food and cooked meals of soup and pilau.
Najiba smiles when she recalls how much "Shukria liked the pilau, and Rahmatullah, the shula."
"They had more energy and were generally in much better health," she adds.
As a condition for receiving the money, Najiba attended a three-day course on hazard awareness where she learned what to do, and how to rescue her children, if the need arises, during a fire or flooding. She says, "It is very good to know these things."
For now, however, it is not the fear of fire or flood that preoccupies this widow and mother. Now that the funding scheme has come to an end, she is once again worried about how to feed her children.
"My children are everything to me," she says.
They are all she has, and they are all she lives for. Her only wish - heartbreakingly simple and yet so difficult to attain due to the circumstances of her life in rural Afghanistan - is to be able to feed them. "If there's one thing I could change about my life, it would be to be able to provide them with enough food every day."