The San Francisco Chronicle, November 6, 2011

How kids are treated in Afghanistan - no rights

Of those who survive, 59 percent grow up irreversibly stunted, physically and mentally, for lack of adequate nutrition during the first years of life

By Joel Brinkley

irls in Afghanistan have few rights - 60 percent marry before age 16
Girls in Afghanistan have few rights - 60 percent marry before age 16. Once a girl is married, most every male in her extended family gets in bed with her. (Photo: Adek Berry / AFP/Getty Images)

Hardly anyone noticed, but the Afghan government cut the budget for the state's Independent Human Rights Commission by half this year, evidencing "the government's lack of interest and political will in the promotion of human rights," the commission said.

Nowhere on Earth is the work of a human rights commission more important than in Afghanistan. Why is that? If you want to judge a country, the best measure in my view is how it treats its children.

By that standard, the United States is hardly blameless. New Census Bureau figures show that more than 16 million American children live in abject poverty. But in the United States, could a parent convicted of a crime send his child to serve the prison term in his place?

In Afghanistan, parents can - and do. And that's just the start of the problem as described in Afghan and U.S. State Department human rights reports as well as U.N. documents.

Grim statistics open the story of Afghanistan's children. The nation's child-mortality rate is the world's second-worst. Twenty-six percent of them are dead before age 5. Of those who survive, 59 percent grow up irreversibly stunted, physically and mentally, for lack of adequate nutrition during the first years of life.

From there they become fodder for adults who beat, rape and torture them as a matter of routine. And these are the people for whom nearly 2,000 American soldiers have given their lives. This is the country on which the United States has spent about $2 trillion so far. It's clear from the reports that a decade of exposure to Western values (not all of them entirely admirable) has not brought even the smallest change in their view of their progeny.

War is part of the problem, of course. The Taliban routinely use children as young as 3 years old as human shields, placing them directly in the line of fire. And many thousands of children are orphaned when their parents are killed in battle. They're sent to orphanages where they are subject to "mental, physical and sexual abuse; were sometimes trafficked and did not always have access to running water, winter heating, indoor plumbing, health services, recreational facilities or education," the State Department found.

You'd think children who actually live with their parents would attend school. One thing the United States and NATO have done for Afghanistan is build scores of schools (though the Taliban have blown up many of them - sometimes with the children inside).

But, no, in a country where three-quarters of the adults are illiterate, education doesn't count for much. So about one-third of the nation's elementary school-age children, more than 1 million of them, UNICEF says, go to work every day - begging, brick-making, mining or harvesting opium poppies.

When they are pulled out of work, it's usually so their parents can use them for something else. Yes, a few are sent to jail, but in other cases a court can order a defendant found guilty of harming someone else to provide his daughter, no matter how young, as compensation to the victim, the Afghan human rights commission reported. You can imagine what the victim does with that little girl when he gets her home.

And then, 60 percent of the nation's girls are married off before they reach age 16. Once married, most every male in the extended family gets in bed with her, like it or not. Other girls are traded away without marriage. Rather than paying a dowry, parents often give their little girls, 6 or 7 years old, as a "gift."

Afghan law makes clear the nation's view of sex with children. Adult pornography is strictly illegal. But child pornography - well, there's no law against that. And girls are not the only victims.

A better known outrage (I and others have written about it before) has been in play for centuries. Afghan men take boys as young as 8 years old as lovers. Among the Pashtun, Afghanistan's largest and most important tribe, half the men are believed to be bacha baz, the term for an Afghan man with a boy lover. That's tens of thousands of young boys corrupted, mentally maimed, for life.

Afghanistan is a barbarous nation, arguably the most primitive on Earth. The average life span is 44 years, UNICEF says. Only Angola's is lower. But Afghans are like wolf spiders. They eat their young. And as long as that continues, as long as Afghans wound and stunt their offspring, the nation's sad lot will never improve.

Joel Brinkley, a professor of journalism at Stanford University, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former foreign correspondent for the New York Times. To comment, go to

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