Poverty and old age: The struggle of Afghanistan’s senior citizens

By Jalil Rawnaq, translated by Kazim Ehsan

The plight of Afghanistan’s elderly population, approximately 1.5 million people, has been primarily ignored amidst the country’s turmoil. Ewaz, a 73-year-old retired teacher (name changed for privacy), represents the struggle faced by many in his situation. Prior to his retirement in 2017, Ewaz taught literature, religious subjects, and Afghan history for over 15 years in a high school in the Qarabagh district of Ghazni province. However, his career was cut short by a rheumatism diagnosis, forcing him to request early retirement. The government agreed but reduced his years of service and pension as a result.

For the past two years, Ewaz has not received his pension. He explains that even before the Taliban took control, he experienced delays in pension payments. Now, a policy or plan must address retirees’ pensions and benefits. Ewaz rightfully believes he is entitled to his retirement, as he worked diligently and contributed a portion of his salary to secure it for his future. Yet, the Taliban have taken this right away from him and countless others.

Currently living with his eldest son, Ewaz has no income and relies on his children for financial support. Despite their assistance, the burden of his medical expenses makes it challenging for them to afford daily living costs. Ewaz tries to cope with the difficult circumstances, but he cannot do some shopping and even refrains from eating out to minimize costs.

The story of Ewaz sheds light on the more significant, overlooked crisis facing Afghanistan’s aging population. In a country fraught with conflict and instability, these 1.5 million elderly individuals need attention and support to secure their well-being and restore their rights.

In Afghanistan, one of the world’s worst countries for older adults, the rapidly aging population faces significant challenges. The Taliban Statistical Office reports that approximately 4.21% of the nation’s population is elderly, and this demographic experiences some of the most severe social and economic conditions. The lack of elderly care homes, unemployment, inadequate income security, and mounting healthcare costs contribute to the problems faced by this aging population.

During the one-and-a-half years of Taliban control, the fragile situation of the elderly has been neglected, with conditions worsening due to the country’s economic challenges and the Taliban’s misogynistic actions. This exacerbates social instability, poverty, and insecurity. Out of an estimated population of 34 million, nearly 1.5 million are older people, with 58.64% being men and 41.36% women.

However, the aging population of Afghanistan may be much higher than estimated, as the Taliban’s figures are based on the 2002 census. In undeveloped and less developed countries like Afghanistan, the growth of the elderly population occurs rapidly, with a 2.07% increase (29,940 people) in just one year.

Retired government employees are the only elderly individuals receiving pensions, leaving many without support. The number of retired people in Afghanistan remains undetermined, but it is estimated to be more than 200,000. The Taliban takeover and the collapse of security, defense, and intelligence institutions have significantly impacted these figures.

Previous government efforts to address the aging population’s needs have been unsuccessful. In 2009, the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs announced an unfinished plan to “provide services to the elderly at home,” while in 2010, the Afghan Red Crescent Society proposed establishing a retirement home for the elderly, which was met with opposition by the Senate, citing cultural and religious reasons.

This report highlights the urgency of addressing the challenges faced by Afghanistan’s aging population and the importance of developing effective policies and programs to support this vulnerable group.

The Taliban Era

Over the past eighteen months, since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, the country’s aging population has been facing unprecedented challenges. While the Taliban has not issued any official statements concerning the care of the elderly, a credible source from the Taliban’s Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs confirmed that there are no government-operated elder care centers in Afghanistan. Nonetheless, the Afghan Red Crescent Society has stated on its website that its social welfare center department is responsible for caring for individuals who cannot meet their basic needs.

When Etilaatroz reporters questioned Irfanullah Sharafzoi, the Afghan Red Crescent Society spokesperson under Taliban control, he said he “did not receive permission to share about our activities [Afghan Red Crescent Society].” According to a World Bank report, Afghanistan is experiencing a severe economic recession under Taliban rule. The group has not only failed to provide care and support for the elderly over the past year and a half but has also denied pensions to retired employees.

Following protests by retirees, the Taliban announced they are examining the Sharia (Islamic) basis for pensions. Subsequently, it was reported that muftis (Islamic Jurists) had prepared a pension plan and submitted it to the Taliban cabinet, which approved the proposal in October 2022. However, the program still requires the approval of its supreme leader, Hebatullah Akhundzadeh. BBC Farsi (Persian) has reported, citing the Taliban’s Ministry of Finance, that Akhundzadeh has yet to approve the plan.

The Taliban Ministry of Finance has allocated a budget of four billion Afghanis (equivalent to $46 million) to cover two years’ worth of retired employees’ salaries, amounting to two billion Afghanis annually for at least 150,000 retired workers. In contrast, the previous government estimated that 46.2 billion Afghanis (approximately $530 million) would be required to pay pensions for the 2021 and 2022 fiscal years, with 22.4 billion Afghanis (around $257 million) needed in 2021 and 23.8 billion Afghanis (about $273 million) in 2022. If the Taliban leader approves the proposed plan, retirees’ pensions could be reduced by up to 90 percent.

The aging population in Afghanistan has faced significant challenges due to ongoing war and conflict, widespread poverty, immigration, and rapid urbanization. In 2015, the Age Watch Index released a report labeling Afghanistan as the worst country in the world for older adults, with a life expectancy of just 16 years among the elderly, compared to 25 years in Switzerland. The current economic struggles, the Taliban’s mismanagement, and their anti-women policies have exacerbated the plight of the elderly, particularly older women.

Following the Taliban’s forceful rise to power in the summer of 2021, they restricted or banned women’s activities across various sectors, citing contradictions with “Afghan and Islamic values.” These restrictions have severely impacted women’s lives, including older women, by limiting their access to medical care, education, and employment. The World Bank has reported that the country’s severe economic recession after the Taliban’s return resulted in two-thirds of government employees at all levels being laid off, putting immense pressure on people’s well-being and living conditions.

Now at 62 years old, Gul Bibi has been married twice. She has a son and a daughter from her first marriage and another daughter from her second marriage. However, when the Taliban took power, all her children fled Afghanistan and sought refuge in other countries. After her husband passed away, Gul Bibi lived alone in a rented house in Kabul. She made a living by cooking and cleaning for private organizations in the city. Unfortunately, the organization closed down due to financial difficulties last year, leaving Gul Bibi and her colleagues jobless. Finding herself alone once more, Gul Bibi briefly lived with her stepsons but left after feeling unwelcome in their home. One day, while looking for work in Kabul’s “Karte Chahar” district, Taliban morality police arrested her. They took her to the Taliban’s police headquarters before transferring her to the Pul-e-Charkhi prison.

Approximately 600,000 (41%) of Afghanistan’s 1.5 million elderly population are women, many requiring specialized care in elder care facilities due to social and economic circumstances. However, numerous challenges persist, including imprisoning more senior women without legal guardians in Taliban prisons, leaving them with uncertain futures.

An example of such a situation is Hassam, a 64-year-old man who, along with his wife, has been caring for his 88-year-old father since their children left the country. With poor eyesight, impaired hearing, and knee pain, Hassam struggles to provide adequate care for his father. This situation poses significant challenges for Hassam and his wife. 

The United Nations has declared 2021 to 2030 as the “Decade of Healthy Aging,” aiming to promote healthy aging and improve the lives of older people across four areas: age-friendly environments, combating age discrimination, equitable and quality care, and long-term care for an aging population. However, in Afghanistan, the future for the elderly remains uncertain, as no plans have been established to address their needs and improve their conditions.

Qais Mohammadi, a university professor, and economist, notes that Afghanistan’s rapidly changing aging population lacks adequate services. He highlights that the transportation system is not designed for the elderly. Most government and private offices do not cater to their needs, placing financial and social pressure on the government. “Regime changes, a lack of commitment to the elderly, such as unpaid pensions, and high illiteracy rates among older adults as other challenges faced in providing services to the aging population in Afghanistan,” he pointed out.