Published on 03 Mar 2012 at 12:49
Thirteen year old Basera sells what she can on the streets to support her family as they struggle to survive Afghanistan’s coldest winter in two decades. Basera’s story illustrates the daily struggles of Afghan street children and their families. The Afghan government and the international aid agencies provide education and support, but much more is needed to ease the extraordinary burden of street children and their families struggling throughout the country.
There are nine members in Basera’s family. At 13 years of age, Basera is the second eldest daughter of her family with an older sister and five younger sisters. The youngest sister was born in the past few days.
The only man in Basera’s family is her father, Ziauddin. He owns a hand wheelbarrow for transporting people’s goods as a means to make whatever money he can for his family. He works very hard, but still cannot afford the most basic needs of his family. Basera along with her mother and elder sister are knitting “Leaf” [wool mitts used like a sponge for showering] and she is selling them in the city center to help her father earn money to support the family.
Basera’s home is at the top of TV Mountain in the center of Kabul and the road towards her home is frozen and very dangerous to walk on. I am going to see her house and meet her family members. The cold weather has made the path treacherous and I walk slowly so as not to slide. We have to cross a narrow path in the mountain to reach her house. Finally, I make it. The entrance to her house is ruined, and there is a dark porch covered with snow.
“Please wait for me to ask my parents,” she says. She is back within a few seconds and invites me to come inside. Basera’s house is an old house which her family shares with her uncle. Her family lives on the second floor in one room. I climb up the frozen stairs carefully and into the room. Entering the room, I greet the family.
I genuinely wonder how the family can live in such an old and dark room. They placed a “sandali” [local indoor heater using a small table covered by a long blanket used to cover the body for warmth] in the middle of the room.
Basera’s mother asks me to sit down and put my legs under the sandali blanket. Her smaller daughters are sitting inside the sandali and only their faces peak out from under the blanket.
The mother veiled her face, but looks as though she is young. She is making breakfast for her children. “It is very cold today,” she says. “I want to cook warm food for my children.”
She is cooking “shola” [Afghan style food made from peas, rice and water]. “I cook food inside to help warm up the room,” she adds.
Basera is sitting beside me looking around. It looks like she wants to say something, but she decides to keep silent.
Basera is unable to go to school. “My father can only afford to send my elder sister to school,” says Basera with dry lips and skin which show the signs of a hard life.
“I don’t complain to my father because our money problems don’t let me to go to school,” she smiles.
Fortunately however, Basera now receives a basic education at ASCHIANA (meaning “the nest”), an Afghan non-governmental organization providing services and support to working street children and their families for almost a decade. “My neighbor, Madena, persuaded me to join ASCHIANA,” she said. “Now I know a little bit about religion, mathematics and health subjects.”
Basera is not sure if she can go to school one day, but she believes she can achieve her goals if ASCHIANA helps her.
“I would like to be a teacher if I could study at school,” she says. “Then I could teach children and afford my family’s basic needs.”
Basera studies at ASCHIANA’s branch located in the Salang Watt area of Kabul. It is a large house and the day I visit ASCHIANA there are about 50 boys sitting in the corner studying their lessons. Girls of different ages from eight to 16 are sitting in another corner reading their books. There are approximately 250 street children receiving support from this center.
Most of the children at ASCHIANA are busy half of the day with street peddling, including selling plastic bags, washing cars, collecting Pepsi bottles or even begging.
Ahmad Gul, Matin and Nelofar from ASCHIANA indicate that their families ask them to work to support their families rather than attending school.
“My father died seven years ago,” said Nelofar, originally from Guldara district of Kabul province. “A piece of stone hit his heart while he was breaking stones in the mountain. A rich man sponsored our expenses and we receive 1,000 Afghani [about US$20] each month through ASCHIANA to continue our education. I am in fourth grade now. ”
Babrak Khan Lalai, head of ASCHIANA regional center, says that his office identifies the neediest children who have no support to provide them a basic education at the center.
Measures taken by government organizations to support the needs of street children
Gul Agah Ahmadi, Media Advisor at the Ministry of Education says that his ministry is responsible for the development of school curriculum, teacher recruitment and provision of educational facilities for all school children. “The Ministry of Education is unable to establish special schools for working street children,” he said.
According to Ahmadi, the Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs, Martyrs and Disabled (MLSAMD) is responsible for support to street children.
Ali Eftekhari, spokesman for the MLSAMD admonishes the Afghanistan Central Statistics Department for not conducting a survey to establish an accurate number of street children. “Based on the joint survey conducted by MLSAMD and UNICEF, the number of street children is estimated at 6.5 million, out of which 2.5 million are under the MLSAMD’s support,” he said. “We have divided the care of these children among 28 support centers in the capital and other provinces. We plan to increase the number to 34 and establish a support center in each province.”
Eftekhari points out that public unawareness about children’s rights, families’ poor living conditions, frequent immigration and three decades of war contribute to a growing number of street children across the country.
“The MLSAMD developed a strategy in 2008 to identify street children and refer them to the support provided by national and international organizations,” he said.
Children’s rights organizations work to ease the burden of street children
At the same time, the International Labor Organization (ILO) reports that more than half of the laborers in brick making kilns in Afghanistan are children. The majority of these children are under the age of 15 and only 15 percent have access to school.
According to Najeebullah Zadran Babrakzai, Children Rights Coordinator at Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), Afghanistan is a state signatory of the Convention on the Right of the Child of 1994. “Based on provisions of articles 19, 24, 28 and 32 of the Convention, the Afghan government is obliged to prevent violence against children, provide health care and free education facilities for children and prevent dangerous heavy labor,” he said. “Unfortunately, parts of these provisions have not yet been put into practice.”
He says that the AIHRC conducted a survey in 2005 to seek solutions for street children. “Based on our survey, 70 to 80 percent of street children had to carry out manual labor [to support families] due to poor living conditions,” he added. “Thirty five to 40 percent of these children were able to go to school outside of work, but they underperformed in their lessons compared to other children.”
According to Babrakzai, the AIHRC proposed a set of recommendations for Afghan President Hamid Karzai, including an increase in financial support for those poor families, identification of needy children to be provided with support and an increase in public awareness about children’s rights.
Seeking solutions for street children and their families
Economic analysts believe that establishing a support fund for vulnerable children is the optimal solution needed to lessen the burden of street children.
“Two issues should be seriously considered to solve the problems of street children,” said Sayeed Masoud, lecturer at the Faculty of Economics at Kabul University. “First, a support fund for vulnerable children should be established to help street children go to school. Second, the government should develop a national strategy for supporting poor families. These both need dedicated budget allocations.”
According to Professor Masoud, the Afghan president can appoint a commission of professionals to develop a national strategy to advance support to poor families. “The international community, Afghan civil society, Afghan Parliament and other governmental and non-governmental organizations should cooperate in this regard,” he argues.
Professor Masoud believes that such a strategy requires close cooperation from the ministries of MLSAMD, education, women’s affairs, public health as well as the AIHRC, Afghan civil society organizations and the Afghan National Olympic Committee. “Otherwise, in the near future we will
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