Child Labor in Afghanistan

This piece first aired in June, 2009, as part of the show, “Letting Them Down.”

Listen here.

    HOST: The education of Afghanistan’s children is a crucial part of the country’s development. But a major obstacle to progress is the widespread reliance on child labor. In May, an independent research group released a study that documents children’s working conditions. Samia Abbass looks into the problems facing children’s education in Afghanistan, and what’s being done to fix them.

    SAMIA ABBASS: One in four Afghan children between the ages of 7 and 14 works – either in addition to, or instead of going to school. That’s the finding of a new study released last month by the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, or AREU, an independent research organization based in Kabul. The report opens a window on the complex set of factors that determine how children are educated in a war-torn country, where child labor is common.

    STEPHEN PERLMAN: Beyond the headlines that so many people see and read about, there is a more fundamental, but hidden, war going on in the country that affects, definitely affects, children and it also affects the future of Afghanistan.

    SAMIA ABBASS: That was Stephen Perlman, director of US operations at Help the Afghan Children, an NGO that works to improve education quality and availability. The issues of child labor and education in Afghanistan are interconnected. And, as is often the case in conflict-ridden countries, the violence there makes these problems worse. The study on child labor, which incorporated interviews from 33 households in 3 provinces, also covers some of the challenges children face as they try to get an education. Paula Kantor, director of Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit in Kabul, said the organization decided to launch the study after consulting with children’s rights groups who saw a need for this information.

    PAULA KANTOR: So in speaking to them about their interests and what they wanted to know, the ideas around the study began to emerge–that more qualitative work was needed to investigate why poor families put some children into work, and then also why some poor families might not do that. So, understanding more the motivations and decision-making process.

    SAMIA ABBASS: Harun Hakimi, a spokesperson for Afghanistan’s Ministry of Education, cites poverty and security as the factors driving child labor:

    HARUN HAKIMI: A lot of families don’t feel secure when they send their children to the schools. Especially, they don’t prefer their daughters to go to school due to security problems.

    SAMIA ABBASS: According to the ministry’s statistics, 7 million children attend school now; but there are still 3.4 million eligible children who don’t have access to school. And of the 7 million students who are in school, just over 30 percent of them are female. That, said Perlman, of Help the Afghan Children, indicates an even larger problem.

    STEPHEN PERLMAN: A more critical issue is the lack of female teachers. And I think that it’s something like 28% or 30% of the country’s accredited teachers are women. So, why is that so critical? Because so many families will not let their girls go to school unless they’re taught by a female teacher.

    SAMIA ABBASS: Help the Afghan Children runs a teacher-training program that seeks, to “tip the balance” and provide opportunities, especially for women teachers, Perlman said. Currently, 50 to 60% of the teacher-trainees in Perlman’s program are female.

    STEPHEN PERLMAN: We have a very vigorous teaching program. HTAC was one of the first organizations, believe it or not, to actually establish teaching standards. 60% of all Afghan teachers have never finished high school. 90% have never received any training. Our teachers have to pass 11 rigorous teaching standards before we let them step into a classroom independently.

    SAMIA ABBASS: Perlman says the Ministry of Education has many ideas for changing the educational system, but very few resources to implement them. They need support from organizations like Help the Afghan Children, that ultimately get children into the classroom, and keep them out of the child labor force.

    STEPHEN PERLMAN: Boys who grow up, even graduating from high school, whether they’re trying to juggle a job, that don’t have a marketable skill, will join the unemployment ranks. The other unfortunate thing about that for boys is, some of them will become vulnerable to extremist elements who will promise them employment, food, etc. Or they’ll get involved with the opium industry. For girls, the situation is also sad because in many cases, especially in the conservative areas, it perpetuates the very sad cycle of early child marriage and child-bearing for young Afghan women.

    SAMIA ABBASS: For its part, according to ministry spokesperson Harun Hakimi, the Ministry of Education plans to build 1800 schools by 2020. They hope to attract 1 million eligible students per year. And another important measure:

    HARUN HAKIMI: We will keep the education free of charge for Afghans.

    SAMIA ABBASS: But more schools and free education might not be enough. According to Paula Kantor, Director of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, the ministry’s plan does not address key issues facing child laborers and their families.

    PAULA KANTOR: Working children are not included, and that’s a major gap, in a sense, because again, what we’ve found in our study is that children contribute quite significantly to the household income. So considering that child labor will end quickly, and considering in a sense even that that would be positive for many families, is not necessarily the case.

    SAMIA ABBASS: Kantor says she hopes that the approach to child labor and education in the country — which tends to be fragmented — will become more integrated in the future, with NGO’s, the government, and communities working together. Despite these challenges, ministry spokesperson Hakimi believes in the ministry’s plan to get more Afghan children into schools.

    HARUN HAKIMI: Afghanistan’s future is tied with the future of education. The main problem these days is due to having no education. In 2001 we had one million students only and now we have 7 million students and our plan is going very smooth and we hope by implementing this plan, that child labor will reduce.

    SAMIA ABBASS: Reducing child labor through increased educational opportunities is part of the bigger picture of Afghanistan’s political development, according to Stephen Perlman of Help the Afghan Children:

    STEPHEN PERLMAN: If you step back and look at it on a more macro scale, it’s really the war between knowledge and empowerment versus ignorance and fear. And Afghan children have an insatiable thirst for knowledge and become educated, and their motivation in wanting to learn is nothing less than inspiring. And some of them, especially many of the young girls and young women in some of the more dangerous parts of the country are incredibly brave. There is a reason why schools are being burned, and teachers killed and children and their families are being threatened with night letters from the Taliban and other extremist elements. These groups are absolutely terrified at the thought of millions of educated and empowered Afghan girls and boys growing up and becoming productive citizens because they realize that their days of keeping people ignorant and fearful will be over.

    SAMIA ABBASS: The report on child labor emphasizes the importance of reforming Afghanistan’s labor laws and education system. But it also notes that shifting the balance from work to school will require the support of local Afghan communities.

    For War News Radio, this is Samia Abbass.

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