Afghan Children are being deprived of their rights.

Article published on Feb. 21, 2003
community published
Article published on Feb. 21, 2003

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Whether in Kabul or Peshawar, a lack of schooling, begging, and hard labour constitute the every day lives of uprooted children. Between the exploitation of Pakistan and the myth of a return to the homeland, how can they envisage the future reconstruction of their country?

Following the events of September 11th, Afghanistan found itself under the spotlight of the worlds media. After the fall of the Taliban regime in November 2001, much has been spoken about issues of insecurity and problems of reconstruction within the country, the engorgement of Kabul, questions of housing and access to basic services, the weak employment market and the difficulties of rehabilitating the repatriated population, and the return of displaced or exiled persons. There has been strong condemnation of the conditions that face Afghan women, constrained by the burka and the strict practice of purdah (the social separation of men and women). The exit of Afghan children, promised only an uncertain future is also problematic. Families suffering malnutrition and epidemics of all kinds are presented with a crumbling education system and inexistent health infrastructures. They become either refugees in Iran or Pakistan, displaced within Afghanistan or live in a countryside ravaged by war and drought. Afghan children live under the consequences of twenty-three years of war and, just like adults, must contribute all they can to feed every member of their families.

The streets of Kabul are overpopulated with children delivering to others who benefit from family solidarity. They are free at night but spend their days gathering the food that a mother may want for brothers and sisters orphaned by war or an invalid grandfather. Many children are uneducated and are condemned to join the 64% of illiterates found in Afghanistan. Childrens lives predominantly consist of begging and odd jobs, selling assorted items, collecting wood and cardboard, polishing shoes, and cleaning cars. In contrast to the boys who spend most of their day on the streets, girls can only go outside for a few hours a day. They must look for water and collect whatever can be burned or cooked. Their role remains limited to household tasks that cannot be taken outside the family home. The majority of children earn nothing more than a few Euro cents a day and, because of their lack of education, ruin their chances of ever having a job that requires a technical qualification. The work of an Afghan child offers little in productivity and is difficult to compare with that of a professional apprentice.

The Undesirables in Pakistan

The situation of refugee Afghan children in Pakistan is no more enviable. The majority of those born in Pakistan by Afghan parents are without the refugee status as laid out by the Geneva Convention of 1951. The Pakistani state has not ratified the texts of international law and submits the Afghan refugees to Pakistani law, which refuses any foreigner not equipped with a Pakistani passport and visa access to the national territory. Afghans who are refugees in Pakistan have arrived in successive waves, in line with the political and economic hazards present in Afghanistan since the Soviet invasion of 1979. They are estimated at numbering some 1.5 million people in September 2002. The majority are there illegally and are considered undesirables by a public opinion fuelled by a growing intolerance of their plight. Refugee children are suffering in the same way as their parents. They are not declared and have no legal existence; therefore they have no rights under Pakistani law.

Afghan refugee communities live principally in the Northwest Frontier Provinces (NWFP), a province dominated by the Pashtoon and close in geography and culture to Afghanistan. Its capital Peshawar is a historical commercial crux, a stopping point on the silk-road situated on the hub of the Indian sub continent, China, minor Asia and Afghanistan. This teeming commercial activity is a source of revenue opportunity for the refugees who manage a large part of the towns commerce and they constitute the manual labour for local entrepreneurs. Numerous refugee families are also established outside the camps, preferring urban proximity to the declining international aid. The heads of families work as labourers, rickshaw drivers or are employed as housekeepers. These precarious jobs provide little help in the daily feeding of a family of ten or twelve members. All the generations are therefore used, notably the children who work from the youngest age and become familiar with the conditions of a difficult life that is harmful to their physical and mental development.

Refugee children are established in urban zones and are predominantly uneducated. The Pashtoon or Persian language is part of their ethnic heritage. They could not follow the teaching in Urdu of Pakistani state schools and in general families could not finance their studies in private Afghan schools. Just like the children of Kabul, the majority of them work in the streets, doing difficult tasks to earn some roubles to contribute to the familys income. One of the most widespread activities is the collection of rubbish; the recyclable materials are resold while inflammable substances are used for cooking. Moreover, numerous Afghan girls work in the homes of rich Pakistani families, employed for a derisory sum. In Peshawar, as in Kabul, children on the streets do not eat until nightfall, where the household revenue permits. By day, they glean whatever scraps of food they find in the rubbish, which is the cause of intestinal problems and viruses that cannot be cared for due to lack of money.

Establish professional training cycles.

Deprived of a legal existence in Pakistan, refugee children are not familiar with modern Afghanistan, which they can only imagine through legendary stories and oral traditions. The myth of the homeland is prevalent in the hopes of the children who suffer daily violence at the hands of the Pakistani authorities and the intolerance of a people who exploit them economically and socially. Adults dream about returning to Afghanistan, although it is a dream that is difficult to envisage in the current state of instability and uncertainty. The conditions of insecurity and poverty that prevail in the Afghan countryside and the engorgement of the principal cities all encourage numerous refugees to delay their return to their country. They are torn between the desire the rediscover their homeland and the difficulty of giving up real but precarious integration within the Pakistani economy.

Afghanistan is a country ravaged by twenty-three years of war, where everything needs to be reconstructed. In order to encourage families to return to the homeland, and in order to absorb the massive influx of people into Afghan cities, the aid programmes must view the physical and mental needs of the children who are to be the future actors of the countrys economic and social reconstruction as priority. Effort must be concentrated on the consolidation of the education system and making use of alternative strategies for children excluded from the classical school programmes. It is certainly difficult to envisage an immediate and definitive eradication of child labour. It is, however, conceivable to combat the exploitation and non-productive use of child labour through the establishment of professional apprentice schemes. These schemes would be capable of training the craftsmen and workers of tomorrow that Afghanistan needs to rebuild itself from its cinders. Only the establishment of training cycles accessible to all, and adapted to the needs of the reconstruction of the country, will allow the current dynamic of impoverishment to be checked and will drive both parents and children to regain the place that is theirs within the centre of society.