In Afghanistan, more than 50 percent of the population of 24 million people is under the age of 18. UNICEF estimates that up to 30 percent of primary school age children are working and are often the sole source of income for their families. Already hobbled with an illiterate population (71 percent of adults and up to 86 percent of women) due to almost 30 years of conflict, Afghanistan's future will be compromised if its children miss out on education.
Per capita GDP stands at only US $200, so the labor of a child can significantly enhance a family's well being. The complications are compounded by the fact that Afghanistan has been faced with mostly uninterrupted conflict since the Soviet invasion in 1979. As a result of the Soviet invasion and civil war, thousands of men were either killed or handicapped.
Social norms and law prevented women from leaving their homes when the Taliban was in power. Although that law has changed, it is still not culturally acceptable for women to work outside the home, and if a woman has been widowed or her husband is unable to work due to injury or illness, support of the family falls to other male relatives. When there is no extended family support, or it is insufficient to support a large family, children become the breadwinners.
The highest barrier to education is poverty. Oxfam reports: "The poorest families are unable to send their children to school because of the costs (however minimal) and also the opportunity cost of potential earnings." Afghan law mandates that workers must be at least 15 years old. Yet the laws remain unenforced.
Afghanistan lacks the industrial infrastructure generally associated with child labor in the manufacturing sectors of places like China, but there are still plenty of outlets for child labor. In Afghanistan, 21 percent of child workers are employed in shops; 13 percent work as street vendors. Others work in vehicle repair, metal workshops, tailoring, and farming. In Kabul and other cities there are street children who shine shoes, beg, and collect and sell scrap metal, paper, and firewood. The economic pressure to work means that over 3 million children are being denied an education.
Education is accepted as essential to human development and is considered a right throughout the world. Article 28 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child indicates that states "recognize the right of the child to education, and with a view to achieving this right progressively and on the basis of equal opportunity, they shall, in particular:
- Make primary education compulsory and available free to all;
- Encourage the development of different forms of secondary education, including general and vocational education, make them available and accessible to every child, and take appropriate measures such as the introduction of free education and offering financial assistance in case of need;
- Make higher education accessible to all on the basis of capacity by every appropriate means;
- Make educational and vocational information and guidance available and accessible to all children;
- Take measures to encourage regular attendance at schools and the reduction of drop-out rates."
Afghanistan signed the Convention in 1994 and has a history of support for education on which to draw. The 1964 Afghan Constitution mandated education. For women in particular, education was stressed under the Communist regime installed by the Soviet Union after 1979. But a backlash against the modernism purported by the Communists' curriculum, including gender equality, resulted in falling education levels for boys and girls during the civil war (1992–1996) as well as under the Taliban's rule.
The Afghan government and its international partners have initiated programs to widen the educational opportunities of all children. Afghan law mandates education up to ninth grade, and provides free education up to the university level. The U.S. Department of Labor reports that the Japanese government has funded a $4 million education project to provide literacy and vocational training to child street workers and former child combatants. UNICEF, USAID, and other donors are working to improve the government's capacity to educate Afghan children by providing training, funds, textbooks, and other school materials. Various agencies have also supported programs that provide mid-day meals to students and extra cooking oil for girls in the hope that this will provide the impetus for parents to allow children to go to school instead of work.
Today, nearly 5 million children are enrolled in school in Afghanistan. Oxfam reports that enrollment is 51 percent for boys and 21 percent for girls. This is a vast improvement over the situation under the Taliban in 2000, when only 28.7 percent of boys and less than 1 percent of girls were enrolled in school. Yet, despite a 350 percent increase in enrollment since the fall of the Taliban, half of Afghan children—almost 7 million—are not in school, according to Oxfam in a November 2006 report.
The London Conference on Afghanistan held from January 31 to February 1, 2006, resulted in the Afghanistan Compact, a blueprint for government and action on several fronts, including security, human rights, and economic and social development. Afghanistan and the international community set several goals for the state of education by the end of 2010. It sets a goal for primary school enrollment of 60 percent of girls and 75 percent of boys. Female teachers will be increased by 50 percent, and 70 percent of teachers will have passed a competency test. Chronic shortages of resources have plagued the Afghan education system for decades. Even when it was supported, access to education was often impeded by poverty, distance, and poor facilities. These obstacles remain today.
If poverty is the first factor in contributing to child labor, rampant insecurity throughout the country is a close second. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) reported to the UN in March 2007 that over the past year, "Lack of security remained the greatest challenge to the enjoyment of human rights in Afghanistan."
Despite the presence of 35,000 NATO troops, 2006 was the most violent year on record since the U.S. invasion in 2001, with an increase in suicide bombings, improvised explosive device attacks, and coalition and civilian casualties. The concentration of NATO forces in and around Kabul since 2001 has allowed Taliban enclaves to fortify themselves and retake villages, especially in the south and southeast. Insecurity in rural areas has plunged school enrollment numbers to zero in some villages. During 2006, 198 schools were attacked and 370 were closed due to the violence. 220,000 children, mostly in the southern provinces, were prevented from going to school.
Although public schools in the south have been closed due to increased Taliban and Al Qaeda activity, many madrassas (schools offering religious education to children beginning at age six) have remained open and may be used as insurgent safe houses. On June 18, seven children were killed along with several insurgents when U.S forces bombed a compound in eastern Afghanistan, near the border. Al Qaeda forces were suspected of hiding out in the compound, which housed a madrassa and a mosque.
Madrassas along both sides of the Durand Line, the official border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, have long supported fundamentalism and violent activity. The United States recruited Islamists from madrassas throughout the Middle East in the months leading up to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and trained them in madrassas along the Durand Line.
Religious education was the only option during the civil war and under the Taliban, first because it was cheaper than secular education, and second because it was mandated. While in theory there should be no inherent issue with continuing religious education in a very traditionally religious country, Western fears remain that religious education alone, without some kind of secular instruction in other subjects, will lead to the production of more insurgents.
Poverty and insecurity have long prevented generations of Afghans from becoming educated. If education is the key to breaking out of the cycle of poverty, then child labor threatens Afghan economic growth and human development. The goals set by the Afghanistan Compact are lofty ones, and investment in education, security, and social services on a grand scale is required in order to ensure an inclusive education system and an end to child labor in Afghanistan.
Education in Afghanistan: A harrowing choice, by Barry Bearak, International Herald Tribune, July 9, 2007.