Afghanistan: Child Laborers Miss School, Face Spiral Of Poverty

by Ron Synovitz
An Afghan child on the streets of Kabul (RFE/RL)

June 11, 2007 (RFE/RL) — Hasib is a 12-year-old Afghan boy who spends his days working at a bicycle repair shop in Kabul. He says he considers himself lucky because he is learning a trade that he will have for life. But since he started the job at the age of nine, he has had to quit school. And he does not know how to read or write.

I’m fixing this bicycle, so I’ve just unscrewed these handlebars,” Hasib tells RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan. “I’ve been working here for the past three years. I had to learn how to do this work. My hands would get hurt very badly at first, until I learned how to do it. I got burned until I learned how. I had to work a lot to learn and become someone.”

Like many Afghan children who must work to help their families survive, Hasib says he hopes he will be able to go to school in the future.

Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission warns that the prevalence of child labor is creating a generation of illiterate Afghans.

Opportunity Cost

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) says economic difficulties in Afghanistan force one in three school-age children to work in order to help their families survive. As a result, many are missing out on a basic education.

School enrollments are up dramatically in Afghanistan since the fundamentalist Taliban regime was ousted in late 2001, but Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission warns that the prevalence of child labor is creating a generation of illiterate Afghans and that many will be trapped in a spiral of poverty.

Roshan Khadivi, a spokeswoman for UNICEF in Afghanistan, tells RFE/RL that Hasib’s story is not unusual. She says many Afghan children are being caught in an inescapable spiral of poverty because they are missing out on an education. Khadivi says the issue of child labor in Afghanistan is a complicated one that cannot be separated from the country’s economic and security challenges.

“Afghanistan has one of the highest proportions of school-age children — age seven to 12 — in the world,” Khadivi says. “So despite successes, you obviously have a lot of remote areas in Afghanistan where children do not have access to school. A lot of them have to work to support their families. Also, a lot of these children who go to school face another challenge of staying in school. Because of the economic hardships facing them and their families, some of them are forced to drop out.”

Back To School

UNICEF is trying to help impoverished Afghan children get an education. Khadivi says that for children who are forced by poverty to become laborers, the first step is simply to get into a school where they can learn to read and write.

“We are still dealing with a large number of children who are not going to school,” Khadivi says. “A lot of them do not have any sort of skills. Some of them obviously were involved in the conflict; they were child soldiers. And now we are trying to reintegrate them. So the problem is huge. But steps are being taken forward. Some of these kids who are former child soldiers are being reintegrated into society through learning how to read and write, through classes where they are learning to do some carpentry work, or also learning other skills. So their drive is there. But the security [conditions] — and also the economic hardships — make it difficult for all families to really be involved.”

Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission agrees. It calls the situation for child laborers in Afghanistan a grave concern.

The commission says a large number of Afghan children are subjected to the worst forms of labor — and that the high number of children employed in vehicle repairs and metal workshops represents Afghanistan’s harsh reality.

Future Risk

The commission says Afghanistan’s next generation is seriously threatened by the trend, which is manifesting itself through an increasing number of street children, groups of children used by adults for begging, and an “inconceivable” number of children exploited in activities ranging from carpet-weaving to the narcotics trade.

A boy in Kabul sells balloons instead of going to school (AFP file photo)

“Thirteen-year-old Wahidullah says the hours he spends making teapots and water containers at a metal shop in Kabul only leave him time for a few hours of school each day.

“I am working in this metal shop,” Wahidullah says. “I get a monthly wage of 1,000 afghanis [about $20]. I come to the shop early in the morning and work here until 9:00 a.m., then I go to school. After having lunch at home, I return to the shop. My father is ill. He can’t work, and I have to work. My older brother also is ill. My uncle, who was living with us, used to help us a bit; but not anymore because he has moved to another place. There are 11 people in my family. I am 13 years old.”

The Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU), an independent research group, says its research shows that most Afghan parents want an education for both their sons and daughters. But it concludes that Afghan families often are constrained by poverty. And in provincial regions, it says social pressures frequently prevent parents from sending young daughters to school. Instead, many children are sent on the streets to help their families survive.

Ten-year-old Amanullah is among them. He spends his days collecting small pieces of wood and blackish seeds that he burns inside a tin can. Walking the streets as an “espandi,” Amanullah waves the tin can at passersby in the belief that the smoke will protect them from curses and bring them good luck. In return, some people give Amanullah small amounts of money.

“I make 50 afghanis a day [about $1] and take some bread home,” Amanullah says. “I live under a tent along with my father, mother, five sisters, and five brothers. As the eldest son, I do the routine. My father does not have a job. He is capable of doing work. But when he goes to the city seeking a job, people tell him that he is too old to be employed.”

Amanullah’s younger brothers also work in the streets, begging and selling bottled water, rather than going to school. All say their dream is to someday be able to go to school.

In November, the London-based Oxfam International charity reported that some 7 million Afghan children — more than half of the country’s young people — do not go to school.

In the same report, titled “Free, Quality Education For Every Afghan Child,” Oxfam notes a fivefold increase in school enrollments across Afghanistan since 2001. That means about 5 million Afghan children are now getting an education. But Oxfam warns that “poverty, crippling fees, and huge distances to the nearest schools” prevent many parents from sending their children to get an education.

(RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Safia Hasass contributed to this story from Kabul)

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