KABUL/PRAGUE, December 8, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Children trying to earn a meager wage -- some as young as 5 years old -- are a common sight on the streets of Kabul. Many are orphans with no relatives to look after them, but a surprising number have been sent out on the streets by impoverished parents who can't support their families.
From a tattered blanket near a crowded Kabul market, a young child sells trinkets for a pittance -- one of many children on the streets of the Afghan capital trying to eke out a living.
In another quarter of Kabul, 6-year-old Sami spends his days collecting slivers of wood from rubbish heaps to burn for heat. Like many of Afghanistan's street children, Sami is not an orphan. But his father is unable to work. So instead of going to school to learn how to read and write, Sami helps support his family.
"I'm collecting these small chips of wood so that we can burn them," Sami tells RFE/RL. "[My parents] send me out to do this. My father says that when I'm finished collecting these things -- when I grow bigger -- then I should go to school."
Working To Get By
The United Nations says that more than 60,000 school-aged children now work on the streets of Kabul to survive. Some beg. Others polish and mend shoes. Still others sell plastic bottles of water, chewing gum, or newspapers.
Nassrullah is a 7-year-old boy who burns small bits of coal in a tin can at a Kabul park in the belief that the smoke will protect people from curses and bring them good luck. In return, some people give Nassrullah a small amount of money. But others simply turn away, annoyed at the smell of the smoke.
"I make 100 to 150 afghanis (around $2-$3) in a day," Nassrullah says. "Half of that I give to my father. The rest I give to my mother. My father is unable to work, so I am obliged to do this. I also buy bread for them. I leave home every day at 7:00 or 8:00 in the morning to do this."
The Afghan Constitution says education through the ninth grade is compulsory. But in November, the Oxfam International charity reported that some 7 million Afghan children -- more than half of the country's young people -- do not go to school.
In its report, titled "Free, Quality Education For Every Afghan Child," Oxfam noted a fivefold increase in school enrollments across Afghanistan since 2001 -- with about 5 million children now getting an education. But Oxfam warns that "poverty, crippling fees and huge distances to the nearest schools" prevent many parents from sending their children to get an education.
Oxfam is urging donor countries to invest more than $700 million to rebuild schools and supply textbooks during the next five years. It says the education of Afghan children is crucial in improving their lives and rebuilding the country.
The Afghanistan Evaluation and Research Unit (AERU), an independent research group, concludes that most Afghan parents want an education for both their sons and daughters. But it says Afghan families often are constrained by poverty. And in provincial regions, fears of negative social pressures often prevent them from sending young girls to school. Instead, children often are sent on the streets to help the family survive.
When asked about the plight of street children in Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai says education is the key to breaking the cycle of poverty and creating a more prosperous future.
Karzai says the Afghan government -- with the help of international donors -- has begun some programs to get orphaned children off the streets and into school.
But Abdul Wassay, an official in Afghanistan's Ministry of Work and Social Affairs, tells RFE/RL that more aid is needed.
"There are a number of children in our society who have no relatives whatsoever. They are forced to do hard work," Wassay says. "For these children, our ministry is trying to put an end to such difficulties. Other organizations also should help us. We have started lots of programs for such children. The problem is our shortage of financial means."
...And Nonprofit Aid
One internationally known Afghan nongovernmental organization that is trying to help is Aschiana, which means "nest" in Dari. Aschiana provides income-generating training and basic educational skills to poor boys and girls who work on the streets. Classes include reading and mathematics, as well as courses in art, music, dance, computing, and sports. Funding comes from the European Community, the World Bank, and foreign charities.
Kabul resident Abdul Karim says he could not afford to pay for the education of his son, Nasir Ahmad, until he learned about Aschiana.
"I was not even able to pay for the stationery or for the bus fare to send my son to a normal school," Abdul Karim says. "That is why I sent him to Aschiana to learn and get help."
Nasir Ahmad explains that he was working to help feed his family when one of Aschiana's teachers met him and offered him help.
"I was working on streets until a teacher named Huma came to me and took me to Aschiana," Nasir Ahmad says. "I was illiterate. I learned reading and writing there. And then I became interested in painting -- so I joined the painting class there."
Nasir Ahmad still works to help feed his family. But now he does so in the afternoon -- after finishing morning classes offered by Aschiana and having a midday lunch there. With the skills he has learned, he says he now has more hope for his future.
In the past 12 years, Aschiana has expanded its activities outside of Kabul -- opening centers recently in Mazar-e Sharif, Herat, and Parwan Province. It also has outreach camps for returning refugees where 3,000 kids benefit from education, nutrition, and health-care programs.
Aschiana Executive Director Mohammad Yousef says education for street children begins with primary education -- teaching them to read and write. He says older children receive vocational training after they become literate. He says several hundred street children are integrated into normal schools each month through Aschiana's programs.
But for every child the Afghan nongovernmental organization has helped, there are five more children still on the streets of Kabul struggling to survive -- and missing out on the education that the Afghan Constitution says they have a right to obtain.
(RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Khan Mohammad Seend contributed to this report from Kabul.)
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