Afghanistan: Victims of war and poverty [Archives:2004/764/Reportage]

August 16 2004
A group of Afghan children that work regularly on the streets in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan (Yemen Times Photo by Peter Willems)
A group of Afghan children that work regularly on the streets in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan (Yemen Times Photo by Peter Willems)
An Afghan girl working on the streets in Kabul, Afghanistans capital (Yemen Times Photo by Peter Willems)
An Afghan girl working on the streets in Kabul, Afghanistans capital (Yemen Times Photo by Peter Willems)
By Peter Willems
Yemen Times Staff

Ariana is busy everyday on Flower Street in central Kabul, Afghanistan's capital. Selling local newspapers and magazines, she eagerly approaches any potential customer – she sees to try and sell enough to make a living.
Ariana is an eight year-old who helps her mother, four brothers and three sisters, to get by.
“My father was killed by the Taliban when he fought with the Northern Alliance,” explained Ariana. “My mother has to take care of my brothers and sisters, so one of my brothers and I work. We pay the rent and buy food for the family.”
Ariana is one of millions of Afghan children working to help their families get through the harsh conditions of the war-torn country. Although there are no official figures in Afghanistan on the widespread phenomena of working children, the Afghan Street Working Children and New Approach (Aschiana), a humanitarian aid organization that helps working children, estimates that up to 60,000 children in Kabul alone are working on the streets. The figures do not include a vast number of children who are working in family businesses, factories or shops.
“It is a different situation in Afghanistan than in most other countries,” said Edward Carwardine, Communication Officer of United Nation Children's Fund (Unicef) based in Afghanistan. “Most children work in one way or another during their early years. To be realistic, it is normal in Afghanistan for children to help their families by working, be it in the family business, agriculture, and so forth. Up to now, it has been a part of life in Afghanistan.”
What Afghanistan has faced over the last two decades has forced more children to work. The country has gone through 25 years of ongoing warfare that has left its economy in a shambles. As many as 80% of the population lives in poverty and the majority are jobless. Many families have lost their breadwinners to armed conflict; there have been a number of droughts over the last few years; and over two million Afghans returned to their country after the Taliban regime fell in late 2001 which has pushed unemployment even higher.
Aschiana found that the number of working children on the streets in Kabul has nearly tripled between 1996 and the end of last year. In the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, children taking to the streets to make a living jumped from 1,000 to 5,000 in less than five years.
A number of steps have been taken to persuade children to go to school during the rebuilding process in the last three years. Financial aid from donor countries has supported the constructing or rebuilding over 200 schools and has sent millions of textbooks to urban and rural areas.
But programs assisting working children have had to adapt to the situation in Afghanistan today: Under such difficult conditions, the aim is to get children to go to school while working.
“This is an economic reality. It is common for children to go to school half the day while working the rest of the day,” said Carwardine.
With education being critical, Unicef has initiated an awareness program to teach parents that if children are allowed to go to school, there will be better returns for the family in the future.
“What we teach is that education is a good investment,” said Carwardine. “A child will get a better job later in life if he or she is educated, which will benefit the family down the road.”
Unicef also tries to reach out to children who are living far from school. The Community Based School program has set up many schools in villages using any building available, such as empty houses, restaurants or shops, and has recruited local teachers.
Afghanistan also had to overcome the lack of educating girls in the past when the Taliban banned girls from going to school. Unicef, working with the Ministry of Education, was able to add 400,000 girls to enrollment last year and aims at a 600,000 increase in 2004.
Aschiana, the largest organization assisting children carrying out jobs on the streets, provides education for children that are working to support their families.
“Some organizations have tried to send children to school and give up their jobs,” said Mohammad Yousef, Director of Aschiana. “But what about food? Shelter? Clothes? The children eventually return to the streets, so our solution is to combine education and work.”
Aschiana, which now works with over 3,600 children in Kabul, gives working children basic education and provides accelerated programs for children who need to catch up. The organization also offers vocational training and helps children search for jobs once they have completed their studies.
Even though efforts have been made to assist working children, the conditions the children are living in have not improved much in recent years. Soon after President Hamid Karzai took office in 2001, he requested $27.5 billion over a seven-year period to reconstruct the country. Up to now, the money coming in has not kept up with the amount needed each year, which has slowed down rebuilding the country.
The majority of the population is still without running water and electricity and most of the roads are in need of repair. The Afghan economy has barely moved forward, jobs are scarce and there has been very little local or foreign investment since the Taliban regime was ousted.
The remnants of the Taliban have regrouped, and fighting against 20,000 US troops has intensified. Up to 900 people have been killed in the last 12 months. Violence has also spread to the north with the Taliban attempting to destabilize the country and derail the upcoming elections. Over 25 aid organizations have pulled out of the country while many others have streamlined their work due to security concerns.
Government officials believe that violence will increase between now and the presidential elections scheduled to be held on October 9th.
“The Taliban and other groups will increase their attacks as we get closer to the elections,” said Syed Alamudin Atheer, Deputy Director of Counter Narcotics Directorate. “All they want is to prevent the establishment of a strong central government.”
NATO has promised to send 1,500 more troops in September to help provide security for the elections. Up until now, the peacekeeping force has included only 6,500 soldiers, mostly stationed in Kabul. NATO will also keep 2,000 more soldiers on standby if needed. The United States continues to train Afghanistan's forces with the goal of establishing a 70,000 strong army by 2011.
Analysts believe, however, that the number of security forces stationed in Afghanistan is not enough to stabilize the country in the near future. They claim that if peacekeeping forces are not beefed up considerably, violence will continue.
Although the future of Afghanistan is not clear, Ariana wishes to have a better future. “I go to school every morning and come here to Flower Street and work hard to help my family,” said Ariana. “I hope to have a good job in the future.”