Friday, 12 November 2010

The struggle to eat on the streets of Afghanistan

By Hanan Habibzai

Zaher Jan is just 11 years old, yet he has the responsibilities of someone four times his age. "I wake up at six in the morning everyday to go to the city to clean cars," he says. "When someone stops his car alongside the road, I start cleaning. Many times I've had to listen to the abusing words of drivers; sometimes they even slap my face saying, 'why are you cleaning my car with out my permission?'
"But sometimes a driver is sympathetic, and gives me ten Afghanis. This kind of sympathy happens once or twice a day. But, mostly, I get harassment for these ten Afghanis. One Naan is sold for ten Afghani. If two people show their sympathy in a day, then I'm very happy, because I'd be able to bring two Naans for my family.''
Jan's Naan will feed his widowed mother and 9-year-old sister. They live together in a house, falling apart at the seams, in Kabul, where Jan's father was killed in gun battle two years ago. The day his father died, Jan became head of the family. School has been ruled out for Jan; instead he must spend the time earning enough to feed his family. Jan's plight is a familiar tale in war torn Afghanistan. A large number of Afghan children are forced to start earning a living from a young age to feed their families.
Gulalai Sapai, an Afghan MP, is one of a growing number of public figures in the country using her political platform to speak out against child labour. One in three children in Afghanistan is forced to work on the street, she says. "Children are taking on more responsibilities because of the ongoing war, which is destroying everything. And when they go to work on the streets they face sexual and physical abuse."
A recent survey by the Afghan Independent Human Right (AIHRC) group found that child labour is also placing mental and psychological strain on children between the ages of six and 16. The group's research, which included interviews with 18,443 children, found that a lot of kids were working the poppy fields, and seriously at risk of getting caught up in drug crimes.
Anar Kaley, a commissioner in AIHRC, said the biggest reason behind children seeking work is the families being too poor and destitute to care for them.
UNICEF figures puts the number of street children at as many as 100-150 million worldwide, most of whom are illiterate having been forced to give up on school. Often they have no identification document, which, again, gets in the way of them enrolling at schools. Afghan child labours are the significant part of UNICEF figures.
However, things could yet improve. Afghanistan recently signed an international treaty, which includes clauses for the prevention of child labour. The country has made it illegal for those under the age of 18 to work on the streets. But, Sapai says governments are not doing enough to properly enforce the law, with thousands still working regardless. Even if it were enforced, she says, it is part of the wider problem of poverty. "The families are compelled; these children are bringing home food, who else will give assurance to the families? If their children go to school, they will stop bringing home food.'' She said.
The problem isn't be helped by the dwindling numbers of NGOs and aid workers, in Afghanistan to help these children, but who are leaving because of the threat from militants and insurgency attacks.
However, Ashyana, an NGO based in Kabul with branches in the cities of Gardiz, Herat, Mazar-e-Sharif and Badkhshan, has so far been able to register 7,700 street children across the country and get them back into the classroom.
Mohammad Yousof, who chairs the charity, says: " Tens of thousands of children work on the streets of Kabul. They are should get back into the education system, but we can't stop them from working. If we do, their families will suffer more."
With poverty in Afghanistan soaring, it seems certain the child labour will continue to rise. Some reports identify another way Afghan families try to get their children out of poverty or earning a good wage: sending them to European countries as asylum seekers. They might then receive a sympathetic welcome from western governments who will let them stay.
This dangerously naive perception of the asylum process means that the suffering of Afghan children is often transported around the world.
In Britain, I met a 15-year-old Afghan boy working in an off license in the east London. His family spent a huge amount of money to get him to the UK, so now he is here, working to pay back the money and help his family back in Afghanistan.
Back home in Afghanistan, children also run the risk of being drafted into illegal armed groups or put to work for militants, where they face almost certain death.
The Afghan government, caught up in its own battles with war lords, the Taliban and coalition troops, is unwittingly raising a nation of children forced too soon into adulthood.
Ashyana's Mohammad Yousof thinks the international community should step in and spend aid money on addressing these issues to get children back to the education. Dr Ashraf Ghani, a presidential hopeful for presidential election in Afghanistan this year, has taken up the plight of children as part of his campaign. He fears increasing poverty will push more and more children into the insurgency. So then, the hopes of Afghanistan's child labour workforce lie in elections this summer, if the right candidate gets in, they might yet have hope for a better future.

I written  this  article for the Guardian's International Development Journalism Competition.

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