Afghanistan has not been at peace since the 1970s. After decades of internal intra-state conflicts and droughts, most of the Afghan population is now struggling below the poverty line and experiencing a wide range of security issues. Apart from the Taliban and the Islamic State, the Afghan army has been battling about 20 smaller terrorist groups this year. Who are the silent victims of this tragic situation? The children – Afghanistan’s future.
The horrific environment Afghan children are living has been best described in a recent report published by UNICEF, which calls Afghanistan “the worst place to be born in the world”.
As a general rule, growing up in a state of conflict lowers children’s opportunities to get an education, to access healthcare and be aware of their basic human rights.
Apart from the violence, the UN also reports that Afghanistan is the second poorest country in the world, with 54% of the population experiencing extreme poverty.
When it comes to children, these societal problems translate into high mortality rates, malnutrition, sexual abuse and forced marriages.
The Afghan government claims that considerable progress has been achieved to protect the rights to education and healthcare of children and their mothers. More children and teenagers are now enrolled in schools, more families have access to clean water, and overall mortality rates have dropped. All these despite the harsh terrain and climate and the daily violence most districts in Afghanistan experience. But this progress is uneven, with a high percentage of the children in Afghanistan still living in incredibly harsh conditions and hardly having access to basic services, especially in rural areas.
The child mortality rate is very high as most mothers deliver their babies at home, without any proper medical assistance. This is not only because of a lack of funds, but also a consequence of the patriarchy that exists in Afghanistan, that restricts women’s movement including even going to the hospital. Even more, there are not many hospitals in the country so women often have to travel for hours to reach one, and have to settle for low-quality medical care, as the staff are not properly trained and the equipment is inappropriate.
The official figures mirroring these problems are unsettling: 1 in 18 Afghan children does not make it past the age of 1, almost 50% of children under 2 years old have not received basic vaccines, nor will they ever receive them, while 2 in 5 children never reach full physical or mental development.
Those who are lucky enough to escape these healthcare problems as infants, develop other illnesses later on especially from lack of access to sources of safe and clean water: about 50% of the ‘improved’ water sources in Afghanistan contain fecal matter, which makes them a clear danger to one’s health.
Less than 30% of the Afghan adult population can read so the very low figures regarding child literacy come as no surprise. Even more, the education system lacks infrastructure, which means that the number of students per class can be 50 or more. Given that there are not many schools and that they are usually situated in remote areas, walking alone for hours in a country where violence is a daily occurrence is making an increasing number of parents reluctant to let their children, and especially their daughters, go to school.
However, the biggest threat to education right now is terrorist activity. Afghanistan holds the tragic record of being the country with the highest number of terrorist attacks aimed at schools. The Taliban has gained notoriety for attacking schools or setting them on fire, while the Islamic State has started shutting down girls’ schools in their stronghold in Nanghar Province. Classrooms are also turned into de facto active battlegrounds with all sides involved in the intra-state war, including the state forces, using schools as military bases.
Child Labour and Military Service
There are two other problems affecting Afghan children: child labour and child military service.
About 2 in every 10 children have to work as domestic servants, water carriers, shoe polishers, or cardboard collectors to provide for themselves and for their families.
These ‘professions’ are unsafe both for their physical and psychological wellbeing. Those who are not ‘lucky’ enough to find such jobs, simply end up begging on the street.
When it comes to the military service, up until 2011 thousands of boys under the age of 18 were enrolled in the military, while children as young as 6 were used as suicide bombers under the Taliban regime. This stopped 7 years ago when Afghanistan signed an agreement with the UN promising to stop recruiting children into the national police and military. Although this practice has officially come to an end, there are thousands of former child combatants who are now experiencing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and find it difficult to reintegrate into society.
Being A Young Girl in Afghanistan
Young girls are particularly vulnerable in Afghanistan, as they often fall victims to gendered violence and sexual abuse. There are about 1,500 instances of sexual abuse recorded each year, but it must be taken into consideration that most victims do not dare to speak out, which means that the recorded figure is most likely lower than the actual number of sex crimes. What contributes more to the silence of the victims is the fact that most of the perpetrators are never punished or even judged, because of the corrupt Afghan judicial system.
Moreover, 1 in 3 Afghan girls are married before turning 18. Aside from the psychological implications of being forced into an arranged marriage, becoming a wife at such a young age poses a threat to their health, as many girls are not physically ready to carry a pregnancy to term.
When it comes to education opportunities, it was already mentioned that it is unsafe for girls to walk to school. They are often in remote areas, which discourages many parents from allowing their daughters to get an education. At the same time, there is also a lack of female teachers, which means that there are parts of Afghanistan where there is literally no one that can teach young girls, no matter how eager they are to learn.
It is no surprise then that less than 20% of the girls under the age of 15 can read, and 60% of the almost 4 million Afghan children ‘out of school’ are female.
International humanitarian intervention
There are many humanitarian relief agencies operating in Afghanistan at the moment, despite the risks involved in working in a country where violence is a daily occurrence. There have also been instances where humanitarian organisations turned into targets of such violence. The Save the Children office in Jalalabad was attacked at the beginning of this year and three members of staff lost their lives. This particular incident led the aid agency to leave the country, which was viewed as a “symbolic and practical blow to child protection”.
There are also many international governments that are investing considerable amounts in an attempt to bring peace to Afghanistan and improve the Afghan people’s life. For years, the United States, in particular, has been giving billions of dollars to Afghanistan in humanitarian aid but even such generous amounts are not considered to be enough to realistically improve the children’s life in the country.
Overall, the Afghan children’s situation is becoming more desperate than ever with the recorded figures measuring their mortality rates, education, physical and mental wellbeing reaching a dramatic low.
The 31st US President Hebert Hoover once said “Children are our most valuable resource”, and if Afghanistan does not become aware of this soon, what could its future possibly bring?