The Breadwinner opens with eleven-year-old Parvana and her father at a market in Kabul, Afghanistan. She sits silently with her face covered in a chador scarf while her father, who has difficulty walking and needs her assistance, tries to sell off some of the family's household goods. He also reads letters for a fee, as many people in the country are illiterate.
Their family also includes Parvana's mother, her older sister Nooria, her younger sister Maryam, and her little brother Ali, all of whom are ordered by law to stay inside their one-room apartment. The Taliban, a group of religious extremists, is in control of Kabul and has enforced strict rules over the city. Women must be covered in burqas at all times, and many forms of expression, like books and music, have been restricted. Parvana’s parents are from old respected Afghan families and have foreign educations, though they have lost most of their wealth and possessions after years of war. Parvana loves school and learning, even though the Taliban has disallowed girls from receiving an education. Her older brother Hossain was killed by a land mine at fourteen.
One day a group of Taliban soldiers breaks into Parvana's house to arrest her father for having a foreign education. Parvana and her mother go to the prison to beg for his freedom, and they are beaten by the guards and told to leave. Because women are not allowed out of the house without a related male, the family is left without a source of income.
Parvana's mother becomes depressed, lying speechless on a thin mattress. Mrs. Weera, a former physical education teacher and friend of Parvana's mother, comes to stay with the family to help run the household. Soon, she and Parvana's mother plan to start a secret school in the house and write a magazine that will collect Afghan women's stories, which they will smuggle to Pakistan to publish. They dress Parvana in her dead brother's clothes so that she can buy groceries and work. Parvana begins to work as a boy and runs her father's stall in the market.
One day, Parvana recognizes the face of another boy in the market. It turns out to be Shauzia, a former classmate of hers who is also disguised as a boy. The two become friends. Shauzia convinces Parvana to make better money with her at the graveyard, where they dig up bones for a man who buys them by the pound. With the money they make, the girls buy bulk cigarettes and chewing gum to sell off of trays. Shauzia confesses that she is saving money so that she can go to France. Parvana dreams of going back to school. One day the girls follow a crowd into a stadium, thinking it is a football match. It turns out to be a public display of punishment. The Taliban are cutting off the hands of men who have been caught stealing. The girls are shocked by what they see.
Parvana learns that her seventeen-year-old sister Nooria is going to the city of Mazar to get married. The rest of the family will be leaving with her. Parvana stays home with Mrs. Weera. One day after work, it begins to rain. Parvana ducks into a building where she meets a terrified young woman who refuses to speak. Because the woman has no burqa, Parvana waits until nightfall to leave the building and bring her home, where Mrs. Weera cleans the woman up and gives her clean clothes. They learn her name is Homa and that she escaped on a truck from Mazar after the Taliban took it over and shot her family in the street. With no way to contact her own family, Parvana fears that they have met a similar fate.
Parvana's father returns home, battered and ailing. Slowly, Mrs. Weera nurses him back to health. Parvana and her father make plans to escape Kabul to track down their family in the refugee camps outside Mazar. Mrs. Weera and Homa plan to travel to Pakistan. Shauzia announces that she too is leaving with some nomads. The girls plan to meet in twenty years at the top of the Eiffel Tower. Parvana leaves Kabul leaning against her father in the back of the truck. She wonders what the future will bring as she looks at the snow glistening on the top of "Mount Parvana," a mountain in the distance that her father had, earlier in the narrative, named after her.