World News‎ > ‎

Child labour helps war-torn Afghan families survive

posted 18 Dec 2010, 04:03 by Sam Mbale   [ updated 18 Dec 2010, 04:11 ]

Decades of war leave children supporting families in Afghanistan.

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN (DECEMBER 15, 2010) REUTERS - Afghan Abdul Wahab swings a heavy sledgehammer down onto a red hot piece of metal to mould it into a truck part, sweat dripping down a face marked with grime and soot from the fire, and with a focus rare for an 11-year-old.

Wahab is one of about 1.2 million Afghan children in part or full time work, the government says, in a country where war, poverty, widespread unemployment and a preference for large families have created a huge underage labour market.

A 2010 study by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission found that an even larger portion of the country's 15 million children -- up to 40 percent -- were likely to be engaged in some sort of paid work. And aid and rights groups say child labour laws are routinely flouted.

While Afghan children can legally work up to 35 hours a week from the age of 14, they are not allowed to do hazardous jobs like Wahab's work in his father's Kabul blacksmith shop.

"I have to work to help my father. My father can't feed us alone because the food stuff in the market is very expensive. I wish I could go to school but my father is alone here, we don't receive any assistance from government as well," said Wahab, whose shoulders appear broad for his age because of the physical blacksmith work.

His father, Abdul Rosaq, earns about 1,500 Afghanis ($33) a week in Kabul's Parwan 3 neighbourhood, hub of mechanics shop. He said he moved his wife and four children to Kabul two years ago from the western city of Herat, and even though he doesn't like his son working he has no choice.

Although Afghanistan signed the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1994, UNICEF -- the world body's children's fund -- last month called for a comprehensive Child Act to fully protect the country's children.

Deputy Minister for Social Affairs Wasil Noor Muhmand said the government has a Child Protection Action Network, a joint initiative with aid groups, operated in 28 or the 34 provinces, covering a third of an estimated 6.5 million at risk children.

"Nobody, they can do apply the children to hard work. For the care of them, for the protection them, we announces them, the convention and also regulation we have and law we have published in Afghanistan , all the nation of the people of Afghanistan they are responsible to implement the law (children protection)," said Muhmand.

After 30 years of conflict, Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world, where children make up half the population, a quarter of children die before the age of five and the average Afghan life expectancy is 44 years.

Muhmand added that decades of war in Afghanistan had left many children without fathers, making them responsible for supporting their family and that as a result the country had to let teenagers work, but not in hazardous jobs.

Some children work for mechanics, in agriculture, weaving carpets, selling goods on the street, begging for money wiping down dusty vehicles stuck in Kabul's chronic traffic jams, or collecting cans and bottles from the city's putrid rubbish dump.

"I have to work here because my father is not able to work, I go to school every second day because a lot of work pressure is on me," said 13-year-old Sayed Hammed, who works in a car workshop and is supporting his family.

Wearing a dirty red dress and green pants, Bebe Gul, 10, carries a white hessian bag to collect scrap metal. Her father was killed during an industrial accident and she has to earn money for her mother and four siblings instead of going to school.

"I am collecting this metal to make money, my father died in a explosion," said Gul, wearing her faded black headscarf.

The average annual income for an Afghan is $370 a year, according to The World Bank, and many families have to choose between giving children an education or sending them out to work.

"Most of these kids would be easy recruited by crime groups as we have seen also kids also been recruited by the terrorist groups as suicide bombers so they will become much more of security and social problem in terms of criminal increasing in the rate of crimes and they being easily recruited by the organize crime groups. Now the government needs to be very aware of that and to provides some sort of social protection nets for their families and for these kids," said Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commissioner Nader Nadery.

He said working children did not shock Afghans anymore, but it was a key rights and social problem and the government lacked a plan and resources to deal with it. The commission says that at least 1.5 million children are breadwinners for their families.

Flexible schooling to cater for working children was one way of making sure some children did not miss out on an education and programmes that offered vocational training as well as traditional subjects, said a spokesman for Save The Children.

While it was entrenched in Afghan culture and religion that children should be in school, it had become socially acceptable to send children out to work because families had become so desperate.