Poverty and child labour: How the Taliban are stealing childhood from Afghans

With World Children's Day, the UN draws attention to the needs of children, especially in developing countries.

Poverty and child labour: How the Taliban are stealing childhood from Afghans

With World Children's Day, the UN draws attention to the needs of children, especially in developing countries. A carefree childhood is denied to many. After the Taliban took power, the economic situation in Afghanistan forced many families to make desperate decisions.

Narrow, black-hued trails meander through the mist-shrouded mountains of northern Afghanistan to the Chinarak mines. A donkey loaded with coal slips. A boy, maybe ten years old, pulls him back to his feet. "Go," he calls to the donkey and drives him further down the mountain. The boy's face and hands, lightly clad despite the cold, are blackened with soot. He is still a child and already one of the workers who, despite the danger to their lives, climb down the several hundred meters long, hot and dark shafts here in the province of Baghlan - for a daily wage of just a few euros.

With the takeover of power by the militant Islamist Taliban in Afghanistan in the summer of 2021 and the associated cessation of aid funds, the country's economy collapsed overnight. Hundreds of thousands of people lost their jobs after the hasty withdrawal of international troops. The situation has forced families across the country to make desperate decisions. Some married off their daughters for money, others sold their kidneys or even their children to save other family members from starvation. Very many now send their underage sons and daughters back to work - often with unintended consequences.

One of them in the informal coal mines of Chinarak is Omid. He's twelve years old, maybe only ten, he doesn't know that exactly himself. Omid actually likes to ride his bike, but there is no time to play. He goes to school in the morning, but immediately afterwards he has to go to the coal mine to help support his family. Hard physical work awaits him there: Omid fills the sack on his donkey with coal and takes it to a collection point at the foot of the mountain. The work is potentially deadly, as collapsing mine shafts are not uncommon. He spends up to six hours a day here, with only one day off a week, as Omid says himself.

The school he would like to finish. He's not sure if that's possible. For some children, working in the mines means the end of their schooling and the prospect of better-paying work in the future. "I don't have time to study," says Omid. Also because his home is so far away. "When I'm done with work, I have to walk my donkey for an hour home." In many families there is no money for school books and pens anyway. According to Save the Children, 97 percent of families struggle to find enough food for their children. Female-headed households are hit particularly hard, as the Taliban have pushed women out of almost every occupation.

According to a report by the organization released in late summer, one in four children interviewed for the report said they had been asked by their families to work. Poverty and child labor are not new problems in Afghanistan. While corruption was rampant under the government of the fled President Ashraf Ghani, the vast sums of Western aid money intended to build up the country hardly reached the rural areas. Omid, for example, has been working in Chinarak for three years. Several hours' drive away, in the capital Kabul, eight-year-old Mortasa also has to work to make ends meet for the family. Like his father and brothers, he shines the shoes of passers-by. "I'm scared on the street at night," says Mortasa.

He works every day after school until dark. Nevertheless, he and his six siblings often go to bed hungry. Because money in the family has become tight since the Taliban came to power and Western sanctions were imposed on their government, which is still not recognized by any country in the world. However, unlike many other children who work on the streets, sell gum or collect garbage there, Mortasa has found a place where he can be carefree for at least a few hours a day. In a private school in southern Kabul, Baqi Samandar looks after children who have to work on the streets and are therefore often unable to attend classes.

Here they get school materials, tutoring and a warm meal a day. "Many children come here when they find out that there are free classes," says Samandar. "We teach children from families who can't even afford a pen." Older girls also get the chance to get an education in his school. The Taliban have closed girls' schools from the seventh grade, but many private schools are resisting and are simply continuing to teach older girls. "I'm not afraid of the Taliban," says one of the teachers here confidently. The children at school learn in the simplest rooms. Most of the time, nothing more than a blackboard hangs on the clay walls, and there aren't always chairs and tables. Some of the children have no shoes and walk across the cold floor in socks with holes in them.

The students want to be doctors or teachers, engineers or pilots one day. However, growing economic hardship could put an abrupt end to many of these dreams. Samandar doesn't know how to finance the school anymore either. The usual donations have not been forthcoming. "I don't know what money I'm going to use to pay the teachers for the next few months," he says. Winter is approaching, and temperatures are falling below freezing in many places at night. On December 21st, the longest night of the year, families and acquaintances traditionally gather to celebrate Jalda Night. The festival represents hope.

(This article was first published on Sunday, November 20, 2022.)

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