IWPR, October 21, 2010

Plight of Afghan Child Workers

“My family is in a lot of difficulties and my father has forced me to do this work,” he said, adding that he earns between 20 to 30 US dollars a month

By Yalda Aslami

Sweating heavily, his clothes blackened with dirt and grease, Khowajaha Muzamil struggles to raise a hammer above his head with his thin arms.

Chilren work hard
According to the United Nations children's fund UNICEF, one in three school-age children in Afghanistan has to work to help support families. (Photo: Afghan Photos)

Clearly exhausted, the 13-year-old still has many hours to go before he could rest. Although he attends school in the morning, he comes to work in a mechanic’s workshop after lunch every day and stays there until late at night.

“My family is in a lot of difficulties and my father has forced me to do this work,” he said, adding that he earns between 20 to 30 US dollars a month.

While he would prefer to be out playing like other children, Khowajaha said he believed the skills he was learning would at least mean he had a better chance of getting a good job when he was older.

Experts disagree, warning that a generation of children deprived of education will be doomed to a downward spiral of poverty, with far-reaching economic and social consequences.

In Afghanistan, a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, it is illegal for minors to undertake hard physical labour that could harm their health. Children under the age of 11 are banned from working at all, and until the age of 18 they should not be employed more than 35 hours a week.

But these rules are often ignored. According to the United Nations children's fund UNICEF, one in three school-age children in Afghanistan has to work to help support families.

Mohammad Hussain Nasrat, the coordinator of child development and support programmes at Afghanistan’s Human Rights Commission, attributes the continuing problem of child labour to the legacy of three decades of conflict.

Although President Hamid Karzai created a child rights support mechanism following the fall of the Taleban in 2001, Nasrat argues that the government has failed to support this process properly. Families in need should be receiving aid, but the government has not managed to achieve this, he says.

“The Human Rights Commission is pressuring the government to deliver,” he said. “We have submitted specific suggestions for how this problem can be solved, but the extent to which the government has, or hasn’t, implemented them for it to say – it’s beyond our responsibility and resources.”

Nur Mohammad Wasil, the deputy minister of public works, said his department had helped more than two million impoverished children in the past four years.

“Most were street children and orphans, who were saved from working and sent to school,” he said, adding that this had been achieved with help from both Afghan and international organisations.

Half the population of Afghanistan is under 18 years of age and the vast majority of adults cannot read and write. Observers warn that allowing children to lose out on education will only exacerbate the cycle of deprivation.

Eating his lunch with oily hands, Amrullah, 11, explained how he came to spend his days at a mechanic’s shop, where he takes home five dollars a week.

“I was in third grade at school,” he said, telling his story with a boyish smile. “My father is illiterate; he’s a municipal cleaner but he was sacked and doesn’t have a job now. My father told me there wasn’t any need for me to go to school any more. He said government employment wasn’t to be trusted and wouldn’t feed us, so I had to become a mechanic and earn a good income in future.”

Amrullah says his father would never have made him drop out of school if he had not been unemployed.

“I would have loved to have been a doctor,” he added.

Girls who work outside the home face additional pressures because of conservative social attitudes.

Farida, 12, sells cigarettes and chewing tobacco on the street, making two and-a-half dollars each day. Her father is too old to work, she says, and she has five sisters and two brothers still at home.

“I’m out in the street every day until the evening, inhaling the dust and fumes from vehicles. I have to put up with hearing foul language from passers-by,” she said. “I have no choice but to do this in order to support my family. If I don’t do it, my whole family will be forced to come to the roadside and beg.”

In more rural areas, children often work with the rest of the family in farming or carpet-weaving. In the towns, they are vulnerable to exploitation by employers in workshops, hotels and building sites.

Heavy manual labour places a huge strain on their young bodies.

“Children are at an age when they are growing so they need rest,” paediatric specialist Ahmad Khalid Alami said, adding that the strain of work could stunt growth. “Hard labour puts huge physical pressure on children, and may lead to disability.”

Some children are simply not strong enough to deal with the jobs they are expected to do. Faridune, 13, now walks with a limp due to an injury sustained in a timber merchant’s yard.

“When I was lifting a big log one day, it was too heavy and it fell on my foot and broke it,” he said. “I had to stay at home for two months. But I had to come back so as to help my family.”

Struggling to shift a large bundle of wood onto a set of scales to be weighed, Faridune explained that his father is a teacher but does not earn enough to sustain the whole family. So while the father spends his mornings at school, the son comes to work each afternoon.

Experts warn that heavy labour can have a major psychological impact on children.

Psychology lecturer Wahidullah Wahid says children who are forced to work rather than to play and study often grow up to be angry, aggressive, and antisocial and negative.

“Most of these children grow up to be unproductive members of society,” he said. “They have damaged personalities and view everything and everyone with pessimism and doubt. They are likely to become a burden to society.”

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