Afghanistan’s dire political and economic situation jeopardizes its fight against child labor
[This article is accompanied by a photo report from Kabul, which can be viewed here]
On Barchi Road, one of the main arteries of Kabul, a small character spins between cars brandishing a cardboard box. “10 afghans [approximately US$0.10] for a mask against the coronavirus, ”explains the boy, who is barely seven years old. Further down the street, a little girl knocks on the windows of a car to ask for money. In Afghanistan, such scenes are commonplace.
In a 2018 report prepared with the support of the International Labor Organization (ILO), the Afghan Minister of Labor acknowledged that 29% of Afghan children between the ages of 5 and 17 are engaged in child labor. Human Rights Watch (HRW) previously reported that a quarter of Afghan children between the ages of 5 and 14 work for a living, often for long hours, in dangerous conditions and for meager wages. These figures are only estimates: the conditions of war and isolation affecting part of the rural population have made it difficult for government officials and NGOs to get an accurate picture. But even these estimates show how widespread and deeply rooted the phenomenon is in Afghan society, where 45% of the population is under the age of 15.
The practice of child labor is indeed illegal in Afghanistan. In April 2010, the country ratified two key treaties in the fight against child labour: ILO Convention 182 on the worst forms of child labor and Convention 138 on the minimum age. According to Afghan law, the minimum age for employment is 18. Minors between the ages of 15 and 17 can work under certain conditions, provided that the work is not strenuous, requires less than 35 hours per week and constitutes a form of vocational training. Children 14 and under are prohibited from working.
Legislation and action plans to combat child labor were put in place under the Islamic Republic (2001-2021), mainly supported by the US-backed administration and part of civil society Afghan liberal. But these efforts have come up against a local reality that remains well below international standards.
The high incidence of child labor in Afghanistan is mainly due to the extreme poverty of its population. The country remains one of the poorest in the world. As HRW Asia Director Patricia Grossman tells Equal times“Some families have no other choice. Afghanistan’s economy, damaged by decades of war, needs help. It is difficult to tell poor people to simply stop these practices.
Besides poverty, the lack of access to education in remote and conservative areas compounds the problem of child labour. According to Afghan authorities, 3.5 million children were out of school in 2017, most of them in rural areas. Half of working children stop going to school.
“Most child laborers in Afghanistan are employed in the agricultural sector,” says Amanda Bissex, UNICEF Regional Child Protection Advisor for South Asia. “The three-year drought has led to the impoverishment of rural farmers, which has further aggravated the problem.” A significant number of children also work in carpet factories, kilns and mines, not to mention those engaged in street trading and unauthorized begging.
The gap between legislation and reality on the ground is also due to “lack of resources to engage with communities about these practices and a lack of relevant awareness”, Emma Allen, a researcher at the Samuel Hall Research Centre, who has an office in Kabul, says Equal times.
If the Afghan State, with its very small number of labor inspectors, is limited in its means, this lack of means is also the result of endemic corruption in the Islamic Republic. Ali [name changed], head of the NGO War Child Afghanistan, confirms: “Some children forced to work in drug trafficking have been exploited by networks linked to the corrupt Afghan police. It was impossible to criminalize these groups and thus save the children from this work.
Intensification of child labor driven by acceleration of poverty
Afghanistan’s economy was already in dire straits before the Taliban returned to power in 2021 and the subsequent imposition of international sanctions plunged the country into even deeper crisis. After the fall of Kabul on August 15, Washington froze $9.5 billion in assets belonging to the Afghan Central Bank to prevent them from falling into the hands of the Taliban. Unpaid salaries of civil servants, a slowing economy, limited access to banks and dwindling international aid have accelerated poverty in the country.
In addition, many humanitarian organizations that provided some support to poor families have reduced or ceased their activities in recent months. As a result, over 60% of Afghans are now food insecure according to the World Food Programme. According to the United Nations Development Programme, 97% of the population could fall into poverty by spring 2022 if no action is taken. This situation has only intensified the practice of child labour.
Based in Herat, the country’s third largest city, the NGO War Children helps children who have migrated to neighboring Iran to find work and who have been arrested and repatriated to Afghanistan. According to Ali, the number of children seeking work in Iran has increased: “Twice as many are being repatriated to Afghanistan compared to the same period last year.” The same phenomenon exists on the border with Pakistan. In recent months, local media have reported that Afghan children regularly cross the Pakistan-Afghan border illegally with smugglers, often hiding under trucks in extremely dangerous conditions.
In addition to the severe economic crisis, the return to power of the Taliban fundamentalists raises its own questions about the intentions of the new Islamic emirate in terms of child protection.
Afghan girls are no longer allowed to study in secondary school in most provinces of the country and must stay at home from the age of 12. According to Allen of the Samuel Hall Centre, these new measures “could increase girls’ work at home, heavy work in particular. It could also increase early marriage and begging.
Child labor affects boys and girls in different ways. According to an April 2021 report by the National Statistics and Information Authority (NSIA), twice as many boys as girls work outside the home, while girls are mostly confined to work at home, which makes them invisible and therefore more difficult to control. assess.
“They usually work in carpet weaving,” says Ali of War Child. International organizations like Unicef have set up “safe spaces” for dialogue where girls who work from home can talk openly about their lives. Unfortunately, the impact of such programs remains limited in Afghanistan, where families rarely let the government or international organizations into the private sphere.
An uncertain future
Since taking power on August 15, the Taliban has yet to publicly introduce a child labor policy. According to Allen, “there were no clear messages on the subject”. The Taliban’s child protection practices are concerning: “They have used child soldiers in the past,” Allen says. “Their messages and actions on child rights issues, such as education and marriage, have neither recently nor historically been strongly aligned with the international standards set out in the Convention on the Rights of the Child. “
According to War Child’s Ali, the priorities of the Taliban since their return to power remain unclear: “Are they really going to support the fight against child labour? Will they change the law? We currently have no indication of any kind, we are completely in the dark.
The change of regime and the creation of the Islamic Emirate raise many questions about the application of laws previously ratified by the Republic. Back in power after 20 years of insurrection, the Taliban must prove their ability to administer a state. Their policies currently rest on two pillars: security and the establishment of “truly” Islamist rule based on Sharia (which, significantly, prohibits the exploitation of children).
Amanda Bissex of Unicef, one of the few organizations still present in the country, is rather optimistic: “We raised the issue of child labor with the Taliban and they shared their concerns with us. They asked for help from Unicef in this area. However, the resources of the UN agency remain limited and international aid to the population currently takes the form of food and health support to help meet basic needs. Long-term human rights agendas, including those related to education and child protection, remain at the mercy of diplomatic and geopolitical forces.
This article has been translated from French.