By Baqer Adeli
In the relentless heat of a summer’s day in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif, most people are trying to find some shade, but 11-year-old Mohammad Rafiq is walking the streets carrying a box full of shoe-shining equipment.
Dripping with sweat, the boy asks passers-by, “Uncle, may I polish your shoes?”
Although often rebuffed, he carries on walking undeterred, calling out, “Polish your shoes and slippers.”
Mohammad Rafiq used to spend his days at school, but five months ago, his family moved to Mazar-e Sharif because of drought and unemployment in Faryab province, where they lived. He would love to carry on in school, but doubts he will able to do so.
“My father is old and ill,” he said. “My brother and I polish people's shoes every day. We only earn enough to pay for bread.”
The worse thing about his new life working on the streets, he said, was when strangers tried to lure him into sex work.
“Nothing annoys us more than the demands of these horrible people, who ask us to do bad things,” he said.
Mohammad Rafiq described how a friend of his was abused by a stranger who enticed him by giving him something to eat, and then abducted him.
“They took him to some place and did shameful things to him,” he said. “They dumped him in a corner of the city after a few days. He didn’t feel well, and had to be taken to hospital.”
Hundreds of children work on the streets of Mazar-e Sharif, collecting rubbish, carrying goods, selling produce or simply begging.
Experts say they are often at risk of sexual exploitation. The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission has repeatedly expressed concern over an increase in sexual abuse cases.
“Children are the most vulnerable section of society,” said Salamat Azimi, head of the commission’s section for children’s rights in northern Afghanistan. “There is no guarantee these children will not be abused.”
Sexual abuse is a taboo subject in Afghanistan, and the families of victims often keep quiet about it out of shame or fear of reprisals.
Nevertheless, local media in the north have recently reported on ten cases of abuse, and got family members to speak out on behalf of the victims.
An Afghan child sorts bricks at the Sadat Ltd. Brick factory, where he works from 8am to 5 pm daily, on May 14, 2010 in Kabul, Afghanistan. Child labour is common at the brick factories where the parents work as labourers, desperate to make more money enlisting their children to help doing the easy jobs. Brick factories are an economical, business that is still thriving. The land used is dry and barren which is perfect for the making of bricks providing work almost all the year round. A few years ago all factories changed from wood to coal causing further problems with pollution. The factories have been pushed out of the city limits because of this issue. Workers can make an average of USD 200 to 300 per month. For 1,000 bricks the factory will get about USD 45. (Photo: Majid Saeedi/Getty Images Europe)
Maria Sayi, head of child protection at Balkh provincial welfare department, said the lawless environment, poverty and unemployment forced many minors to work.
“Children can often be observed working from sunrise until evening. The International Labour Organisation has banned such conditions for children,” she said, adding that Afghan labour legislation was unclear on the hours and kind of jobs minors were allowed to work at.
A survey carried out by her organisation in 2008 covered some 780 children, and found that many of them had been forced to drop out of school and go to work for economic reasons.
Sayi said that when cases of child abuse were uncovered, her agency worked with the police to pursue the culprits. But sometimes they involved individuals to powerful to be held to account.
“Influential figures are often involved, and we fail to go after them,” she said. “When we realise that we have leads that take us out of our depth, we are forced to stop investigating the case. Even the national security forces sometimes warn us to stop.”
Sayi said her department had received threats from powerful individuals when it investigated such cases.
Mohammad Nazer Alemi, a child protection campaigner who heads the Youth Information Centre in Balkh province, confirmed that powerful individuals and officials were sometimes implicated in the abuse.
He said he was in possession of a documentary film which no media outlet would agree to air, because it showed the involvement of powerful individuals.
He referred to the tradition of “bacha bazi” or dancing boys, kept by powerful older men and made to perform at private parties.
“They not only force them to dance but also sexually abuse them,” he said.
Sher Jan Doranai, spokesman for police headquarters in Balkh, said sexual abuse and child trafficking did not exist in Balkh province at all.
“Perhaps such cases exist in other northern provinces, but not in Balkh,” he said, insisting that the police carried out their duties of child protection to the full.
While a child protection law is on the statute books, observers say it is not implemented properly. Alemi said that on several occasions, he had seen police harassing or beating street children instead of protecting them.
Mohammad Rafiq will continue living on his wits, and on the advice his mother gives him.
“Every day, she tells me to come home before it gets dark in the evening, not to polish anyone’s shoes in secluded places, not to take extra money if anyone offers it to me, and not to eat anything offered by strangers,” he said,
Baqer Adeli is an IWPR-trained journalist in Balkh province, northern Afghanistan.