The child labour crisis in Afghanistan: the Taliban’s ban on women‘s right to work increases child labour and poverty

There are at least 1 million child laborers in Afghanistan, with incomes plummeting and millions on the brink of starvation.

“If I go to school, my family will have nothing to eat,” said Johar. “I am the sole breadwinner for my family.” He earns up to $2 per day working in a foundry in Baghlan, Afghanistan

Johar, only 14 years old, is his family’s primary provider as his father cannot work due to disability. Last year, Johar had to leave school and start working to support his family.”A year ago, I studied and worked sometimes,” Johar, who was in the eighth grade, told The Afghan Times. “But this year, I need to work regularly.”  Johar is one of over 1 million children working in Afghanistan, where incomes have dropped, and millions are on the verge of starvation. Many child laborers polish shoes, wash cars, beg in the streets, or work in foundries.

The rise of child laborers has increased since the Taliban took power in 2021, worsening an already significant humanitarian crisis and causing an economic collapse resulting in high inflation and widespread unemployment. The United Nations estimates that 6 million Afghans are on the brink of starvation, and an additional 28 million people need urgent humanitarian assistance.

The Taliban’s severe restrictions on female employment, such as prohibiting women from working for local and foreign NGOs, have also contributed to the increase in child labor. Female-led households have depended on aid agencies’ cash and food assistance to survive. However, many have been left to fend for themselves after foreign NGOs reduced their operations following a ban imposed by the Taliban in December 2022.

“I can’t think about anything else but work,” said Naseem Shah, who left school in the third grade last year and now polishes shoes on the street to find food for his family.

Naseem, a nine-year-old boy, had been polishing shoes for the last 20 minutes and finally stopped, saying, “My back hurts.”

Asked what he wished for, he first asked: “What is a wish?”

Once it was explained, he fell silent, lost in thought. “I want to go back to school,” he said. Then added, “I want to work hard so we can have enough food.”

All of them are not fortunate enough to attend school and work. Instead, they have to leave school in order to work for 12 hours a day, earning only $1 – $4.

Naseer Ahmad scavenges through garbage dumps in Baghlan, searching for recyclable plastic and metal to sell. On a good day, he earns $1. With his family essentially closed off from humanitarian aid, Naseer has been forced to work on the streets.

“If we don’t earn any money for food, we will go to bed hungry,” he told The Afghan Times. “I start working when the sun rises and return home at night.”

According to a 2023 survey by Save the Children, 38.4% of children in Afghanistan are forced to work to support their families. Activists have urged the Taliban to take action to reduce child labor, but the group has not yet provided any plans to address the issue. With the ongoing economic and humanitarian crises in Afghanistan worsening, the number of child laborers is expected to increase.

Mohammad Shoib Khan, an expert in Afghan child rights, told The Afghan Times, “Neglecting our children’s future will only destroy our country’s future, the Taliban government should allow women to work.” Khan believes that banning women from working pushes children to work.

The female reporters of The Afghan Times interviewed 25 child laborers in Afghanistan. These children are being compelled into perilous situations to provide for themselves and their families.

Johar, 14, and his friend, 13, work in a foundry in Baghlan, Afghanistan. Photograph: The Afghan Times

Key points of The Afghan Times’ findings:

  • One in five children in Afghanistan is engaged in child labor.
  • Poverty forces children to quit school and turn to heavy work.
  • Some children work for 12 hours for only $2.
  • Labor laws prohibit recruiting children for work that is harmful to their health.
  • Hard work causes health problems in children.
  • The ban on female workers pushes children back into the workforce.

Know their stories

“We should be helped so we can stop being on the street and go to school,” said Naseem Khan, 12. He carries heavy loads in the city and supports his family of nine, but he says that he cannot earn more than 80 afghanis a day, which is not enough to meet his family’s needs. Photograph: The Afghan Times
“I don’t even think about my hopes to become a doctor. All I think about now is my uncertain future. My father tells me that I will still have a future, that I will still be an independent man, and that I will still have all the things I wish for.” Yaqub, 10, is responsible for supporting his family and helping his disabled father by selling water and cold drinks in the city. Photograph: The Afghan Times
“This is the only option. There is nothing else for me to do to support our family,” said 12-year-old Abdul Wasi, who carries heavy Loads in the City. After his father’s death, he took responsibility for his family, but he says that he cannot earn more than 100 Afghanis a day, which is not enough to meet their household needs. Photograph: The Afghan Times
“I work for 14 hours from 4 am to 6 pm. I never see daylight, leaving home in the morning and returning in the evening,” said Bismillah, 14, who works at a bicycle repair shop in northern Afghanistan. He says that life’s hardships, economic challenges, and family problems forced him to work at a young age. Instead of continuing his studies, he started working. Photograph: The Afghan Times
“I really want to study, but I have to work and have no other option. By working daily, I earn 80 Afghanis to 100 Afghanis, used to buy food and other items,” said Shujauddin, 13, who sells cold fruit water on the city streets to help his family financially. Photograph: The Afghan Times
“There’s no other way. How can we study when we don’t have bread to eat? Survival is more important,” said Jamal, 13, who does not attend school and works as a laborer in a chip shop. He has never studied, only taken care of his disabled father, and earns $30 per month. Although he wishes to start his education, he has been unable to do so due to the family’s needs. Photograph: The Afghan Times
“The last time I was in school was an amazing day,” said Feroz, 12, who sells chips on the roadside to support his family after his father’s passing. He had to leave school at eight after completing only the first grade. Photograph: The Afghan Times
“I am the breadwinner for my family, and I used to go to school. However, because my father was sick, I had to leave school and start working. I don’t want to work, but I have no choice.” said Sifatullah, 13, who collects old plastic bottles in the city to sell and support his family. Sifatullah hopes that once the economic situation improves, he will be able to stop collecting garbage and return to school. Photograph: The Afghan Times
“My father passed away. I work here to bring bread home,” said Rahmanudin, 12, who collects garbage in the city to support his family after his father’s death. Photograph: The Afghan Times
“My brothers and sisters at home are hungry, and we have nothing to eat, so I am working to find food for them.” Naveed’s father has passed away, so he collects garbage in the city to support his family. Naveed, 14, cannot attend school because he is busy collecting trash in the town and on the streets. Photograph: The Afghan Times
“I work 5 hours a day. I came here to learn something as my father says,” said Muslim, 9, who is working in his father’s blacksmith shop. He is currently in 4th grade and attends madrasah, but his father is teaching him blacksmith alongside his regular studies. Photograph: The Afghan Times
“We are poor. What should I do? I find a piece of bread for my little brothers and sisters.” Jamshed has lived with painful life stories. The most challenging thing is that he lost both his parents at such a young age. Jamshed, now 14 years old and a ninth-grade student, lives in his uncle’s house and works as a student in a foundry. Photograph: The Afghan Times
“There are 12 of us in the house. Alongside my father, I came to work here to find something for my family,” said Sadiq, 14, the eldest boy in a family of twelve. He tries to share the responsibilities of the house with his father. Sadiq, who did not go to school, says that his father and he work to earn a livelihood. Photograph: The Afghan Times
“I work for 12 hours a day. My leg and back hurt,” said Said Qayoum, 10, who has been working as an apprentice in a foundry for the past three years. He mentioned that he dropped out of school after coming to this shop and is working hard to find food for his family. Photograph: The Afghan Times
“I’m concerned about my future. I work all day and don’t have time to study,” said Sarwar, 15. He studied up to 8th grade, but due to economic problems, he was forced to leave school. He says that no one else in the family earns, so he left his studies and now works to support his family. Photograph: The Afghan Times
“I work as a boot polisher. I walk from street to street to polish shoes and sometimes sit in front of mosques. I give the money I earn to my mother.” said Gul Mohammad, 9, who polishes people’s shoes on the city streets and in front of mosques due to economic problems. He did not study or go to school. He says he wants to study in school and stop polishing shoes if he can. Photograph: The Afghan Times
“I want to be at home, study, and attend school, but I cannot afford it. I come here and work on the farm,” said Rafi Ahmad, 13. He is studying in a madrasa and working on the farm instead of attending school to help solve his family’s economic problems. Photograph: The Afghan Times
“How will I find food if I go to school while my father is jobless and I have to work?” said Sharifullah, 12, who works on farms with his father. He was a fifth-grade student when he left school. His father, Mohammad Mir, says he is trying to educate all his children, including Sharifullah, but poverty and economic problems have forced him to take his son to the farms instead of school. Photograph: The Afghan Times
“My future is destroyed. I spent my childhood working on these farms,” said Miragha, 15, who works on a farm to support his family by providing food. He has spent four years working on the farm and has not been able to attend school. Photograph: The Afghan Times
“There is no work. Our economic condition is also not good, and thus, I left the school to start working on the farm,” said Mohammad Yousaf, 16, who works on farms in his village, which prevents him from attending school. Due to economic problems, he has prioritized work over school. Photograph: The Afghan Times
“I need to prioritize my studies, attend school daily, and stop certain behaviors to achieve future success,” said Hafizullah, 15. He used to attend 9th grade but left school several months ago to work in a foundry and earn money to support his family. Photograph: The Afghan Times
“When I’m alone, I think that if I had received a good education, my future would have been better. However, I feel powerless, and that’s why I am here. I still hold onto hope that our lives will get better.” said Syed Anwar, 17, who sells onions and potatoes on a street corner to provide for his family of 11. He mentions that he used to attend school until his father’s passing but had to start working when he was 15 to support his family. Sayed left school in the 8th grade. Photograph: The Afghan Times

On the World Day Against Child Labour, June 12, 2024, the brave female journalists of The Afghan Times, with the support of IUF Asia/Pacific, are drawing attention to the increasing issue of child labor in Afghanistan.

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