Afghanistan's Working Children

It was midday on a baking hot summer day in the Afghan capital Kabul, and nine-year-old Breshna was chasing after cars in the middle of the road next to Shahr-e Naw Park. Wearing a worn, untidy dress and a trailing headscarf, she held seven or eight handmade white caps in her hand.

“Uncle, please buy a hat!” she called out to the drivers. Few of them paid any attention. One fed-up driver shouted, “Go away, girl. Don’t block the road.”

“Some drivers insult me,” Breshna told IWPR’s correspondent.

She explained that her impoverished family situation left her no choice but to peddle goods on the streets. Her father was killed in a suicide bombing.

“I live in a rented house in Chahar Qala in Kabul with two of my younger brothers, an older sister and my mother. My mother is unemployed and we don’t have a breadwinner. I walk the streets selling hats every day from morning to night,” she said, adding that she could expect to earn the equivalent of four or five US dollars a day.

Although Breshna is enrolled in grade three at school, she is mostly absent from class.

“I have to work,” she said.

Although the reintroduction of universal education is cited as one of Afghanistan’s major achievements since 2001, children selling goods or begging are still a familiar sight on the streets of the capital and other towns.

There are no up-to-date statistics for the numbers of underage workers, but official figures from 2008 suggested that 1.9 million children aged six to 17 – about a fifth of the total number in Afghanistan – were engaged in some form of employment. While some were begging or selling trinkets on the street, others were doing heavy manual labour. The brick industry is a major employer of minors in various parts of the country. (We looked at this issue in "I Was Not Born a Slave".)

The United Nations children’s agency UNICEF estimates that 60,000 children are working on the streets of Kabul alone.

Some, like Breshna, sell small items like hats, sweets or paper tissues, while others ask for money by wafting the smoke of burning “esfand” seeds at passers-by. This is traditionally believed to ward off the evil eye.

Nuruddin, a 14-year-old orphan who lost both his parents in a suicide attack, is the sole breadwinner for his four sisters and brothers.

He has been burning tins of “esfand” and collecting donations in the streets around the Shahr-e Naw park for a long time. Although he experiences a great deal of harassment, he can expect to earn up to five dollars each day.

The lifestyle has taken its toll on him. Asked what he thought the authorities could do to help him get an education and go on to employment, he replied, “It’s pointless. I don’t want anything.”

Afghanistan is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and has its own child protection laws, but observers say these are not implemented properly.

It is against the law for children under the age of 11 to do any kind of work, but this rule is clearly not being enforced. 

Ali Iftekhari, spokesman for Afghanistan’s labour and welfare ministry, told IWPR that many children were forced to earn a living on the streets, but that the government was doing all it could to help them.

“Family poverty and a high birth rate have led to large numbers of children begging and doing heavy labour,” he said.

Iftekhari said that staff from his ministry periodically tried to gather children to get them off the streets, these efforts had only limited success.

“We haven’t had enough money for this,” he said. “Secondly, whenever we have gathered up individuals from one area and provided them with help, we’ve seen that the next day, the same children are once again begging and burning esfand in some other part of the city.”

As well as the huge risks of exploitation and sexual abuse facing these children, officials say some of them are drawn into crime.

Sediq Sediqi, spokesman for the interior ministry, said street children were a security challenge.

“In general, robbery, theft and drug smuggling are common among these children,” he said.

Sediqi said the Taleban had recruited some vulnerable youngsters to carry out suicide bombings in the capital.

Najibullah Zadran Babrakzai, from the children’s section at the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, said it was up to the government to pay more attention to child labour and introduce tougher legislation to tackle it.

He pointed out that children forced to support their families were deprived of basic rights to education, leisure and play, and a stable home life.

Meanwhile, children like Breshna continue to spend their days on the streets. As this correspondent prepared to say goodbye to her, she asked in a despondent voice, “Won’t you buy a hat from me?”

Nabila Haidari is an IWPR-trained reporter in Afghanistan.