Defending the Defenceless

Can the West afford to turn its back on the street children of Afghanistan? Jeanne Bryer writes from Kabul

The West spends thousands of dollars to protect its property and personnel in Afghanistan. Barriers, concrete defence bollards, and AK47-wielding security guards are a common sight. But under the noses of the protected few, children like nine-year-old Zohra are in the streets braving sub-zero temperatures to try to scrape a living.

Throughout the year, whatever the weather, Zohra and other children work in the freezing snow or blistering sun; there is no relief from the need to earn money for basic survival. “Every morning my brothers bring me here,” Zohra explained. “We come to the streets and sell things.”

Most of the children are their family’s breadwinners, working to keep parents who are unemployed with no prospects. They do not go to school and home is just a place where they eat a little from the proceeds of their earnings, before falling asleep with exhaustion.

The next day will be the same, and the day after that; there are no days off for street children. Yet this is happening under the eyes of thousands of people working in Afghanistan’s government ministries and international organisations.

Every day children roam around Kabul, dodging the dangerous traffic, to wash car windscreens, or sell gum, magazines and other small items. They hover around restaurant and hotel doorways, shivering in the cold, from dawn till late at night, plying their goods and services.

In 2008, a study by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) concluded there were approximately 60,000 street children in Kabul. Aschiana, an organisation that has been working to help them since 1995, believes this number has now reached at least 70,000.

The children are street-smart and savvy but vulnerable to sexual exploitation, road traffic accidents, drug addiction or coercion in to criminal activity.

The street is where they learn their social skills and how to survive by a mixture persistence, cunning and bravery, demonstrating entrepreneurial spirit alongside fearless resilience.

A lack of education and opportunity means their talents remain unharnessed and they cannot acquire the wherewithal to get well paid work or to start businesses when they are adult. Their outlook is bleak; their health and future compromised.

The street children problem stares everyone in the face every day so why is it not possible for the government and the international community to deal with it? Millions of dollars are available to maintain the defences of international property and personnel but there is a failure to defend Kabul’s children.

How many are injured, killed, abducted, prey to drug addiction, child trafficking or prostitution because they are working when they should be at school, is not known. However, it is obvious that many might easily be seduced into joining the Taliban on the promise of a less miserable, cold and permanently hungry, life.

Child labour is not a new phenomenon but one that has been endemic within the poorer Afghan community for years. The tragedy is that nothing has improved in the past decade, if anything the situation is worse.

Rhetoric and reports abound about child protection but the growing figures of working children and their huge presence in the cities demonstrate the failure of efforts over the past 12 years to reduce them. Aschiana and other small NGOs try to help but they need much more support.

Existing projects cannot get to the root of the problem; the parents of street children need more help than they are getting currently. They are frequently illiterate, without skills, or have physical disabilities or mental illness but it is certain they will remain unable to support themselves and their children until these problems are properly addressed.

Without a government programme implemented with political will, the cycle of deprivation will continue. People need sustainable jobs, but until there is security, international investors will not build the factories or set up the businesses that would improve socio-economic conditions.

We hear much about ‘lessons learned’ but when the prevalence of child labour is greater than ever before, it is difficult to see any practical application in relation to the problem. Sometimes entire families become bonded labourers when they are unable to pay their debts, which is why so many children work in brick kilns. Families are subject to a vicious cycle of never-ending debt as they earn too little to buy basic needs and simultaneously pay off their loans.

In February 2012, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) produced a report Buried in Bricks as a result of a survey of brick kilns in Kabul and Nangahar. They found that over half the workers were children and the majority of those under 14 years old, despite the fact Afghan legislation sets the minimum age for work at 15.

Children often start working in brick kilns at as young as five years old and on the streets too, however, as one ILO representative, pointed out trying to impose an immediate ban would worsen the lives of families and may drive the practice underground. A long-term government-led sustainable programme with support for the whole family is needed – without one, working children face a lifetime of problems.

Afghanistan’s responsible agencies and individuals will have to work harder if they are to find and implement solutions to enable all the country’s children to have a secure environment in which to grow and learn. These young people would then stand a chance of being able to contribute to a brighter future for their country.

Afghanistan’s streets are often the starting point for trafficked children who end up in other parts of the country or who are sent to Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and some African countries to be soldiers, prostitutes or potential recruits for the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Morally, the West has an obligation to help children in Afghanistan; pragmatically, can it afford to ignore them?