By Freshta Arash Faizi-Children have rights there are tens of thousands of children who have never known the carefree days of childhood in the country.
Waheda, 8, works in a brick kiln. Her calloused, small hands shape the bricks under the noon-day sun. She says she is the only bread winner in her family.
Child labour is rampant in Afghanistan. Biting poverty is the reason most families send children as young as Waheda out to work. Sometimes the parents could be disabled – victims of landmines and other deadly explosives in the lingering wars.
Or addicts like the parents of 9-year-old Khatera who lives in the infamous Pol e Sukhta, where many of Kabul’s addicts land up. An addict herself, she is all bones and no flesh. Khatera probably got addicted as a baby living in the same room as her opium-smoking parents. She says she spends whatever she earns in alms on buying opium.
Ali Baba is a child apprentice in a workshop in Kabul’s 3rd District. His parents let him work because the family needs money to survive, he says. He is the first to arrive and last to leave in the workshop. He takes home 400 Afs (6 USD) a week, he says proudly.
Afghanistan is a signatory of the UN’s 26-year-old Child Rights Convention but the challenges before the government and non-governmental organisations are huge. The government ratified the convention that protects the rights of children in March 1994. June 1 is observed as International Children’s Day.
Figures tell a sorry story of the plight of children. Some 2 million children work for a living in the country; 3.5 million are deprived of an education; 15 percent of children have no access to health care; one million are child addicts; and 46 percent of girls are married before they turn 18.
Rafeeaullah Bedar, spokesperson for the AIHRC (Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission) says children are the most vulnerable in Afghan society. “We have many categories of vulnerable children. They could be in the workforce, addicts, returned children, migrants from rural areas, trafficked, illegally married or children of persecuted tribal minorities,” he says.
The effect of war on children is staggering. “Since 58 percent of the Afghan population is under 18, a majority of children have been damaged by war,” says Bedar. Children are scarred by the psychological impact of war and untreated trauma.
How come children are at risk?
The problems faced by children are myriad and both the government and child rights organisations have failed to meet their goals.
Najibullah Babrakzai, a child rights activist with AIHRC says, “More than a hundred non-governmental institutions are working (to eliminate child labour) beside the Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs, Martyrs & Disabled (MoLSAMD). The projects, however, are short-term while the need is for fundamental changes that have long-term impact.” He thinks it is for the government to enforce laws to safeguard child rights. Children should be banned in hazardous industries like mining and brick kilns, he adds.
In defence of the government, Abdul Fatah Ashrat Ahmadzai, a consultant with MoLSAMD says, “We had some 6 million children at risk some years back. The number is down to 3 million with 1.9 million child workers.” In his opinion, paucity of funds has slowed down efforts including campaigns to raise awareness about the evil of child labour. “Most people have a traditional relationship with children (Traditionally children have no rights.),” he says.
According to Ahmadzai, the government has promised to increase budgetary support to the ministry for tackling concerns about child rights and “putting in practice our proposals for universal child protection.”