What the World Needs to Know

In Afghanistan, more than traditions and culture, what hinders child education is dire poverty and the climate crisis

In Afghanistan, one faces unique challenges when conducting a study or implementing an intervention. While in the field in Badakhshan province of Afghanistan, we came to realize the devastating situation families and their children face daily to make ends meet. Poverty has had a devastating impact on communities following the withdrawal and the financial sanctions of the United States and the rest of the international community to punish the new regime.

While implementing our intervention to improve the resilience of children and the school teaching and learning process, we faced a unique challenge that is almost impossible to overcome in the current context of extreme poverty: child labor. It is poverty that condemns children in Afghanistan to forced labor and skipping school. One terrible example is gold mining in several Yaftal and Kohistan villages. It is worth mentioning that working in gold mines comes with tremendous challenges and dangers. There, children from a very young age work with chemicals, without protection, in caves. Adults and children dig the ground down to 100 meters depth to extract the clay. Wealthier families can afford a drill for digging. Then they wash the clay to extract the gold. They also use shovels and instruments to separate the gold from the clay. Wealthy people do this a couple of times before allowing poorer workers to try as well to find gold. Digging underground with limited equipment and machinery is extremely dangerous: many workers have died in the galleries they created. Yet, they don’t have a choice; they have to work because most of them are too poor to quit. In another village, people dig the ground with an excavator for up to 20 – 40 meters to reach the site where the gold vein is.

But mining is not the only and certainly not the most common child labor activity. Farming is the most common activity, and during harvesting season, many schools are almost empty: most of the children and parents engage in harvesting crops, for instance, pistachios, in the area where we work. Pistachios grow wild in the mountains. In different villages of the Argu district, pistachio mountains belong to the communities, and the Government gives access to the pistachio trees to different families. During the harvesting season, members of the village, both adults and children, stay for several weeks in the mountains to protect the crop from robbery and destruction. This is the only source of income for most families, and without this harvest, they cannot survive all year long.

Other crops in the area keeping children and their parents busy during the harvesting season are wheat and opium. The previous regime limited the returns on opium harvesting, but with the fall of the Republic and the return of an Islamic Emirate run by the Taliban, opium has become a valuable cash crop. Therefore, most families have turned to the cultivation of opium and included their children in the harvest labor. In the Keshim district, parents included their children in the harvesting of rice, used for direct consumption as well as for sale.

Child labor is the major collateral damage of poverty. But missing school results also from climate instability. Afghanistan seems particularly hard hit by the consequences of the current climate crisis. The recent flash floods of 2022 have killed hundreds of people and left many in dire situations. While planning training in Yaftal-E-Payan district, extreme weather and heavy rains that lasted for three days prevented parents and children from attending our training. Many families had to deal with the aftermath of the flood, saving what could be saved and reconstructing everything they could.

The compounding barriers force families to believe that allocating time for training and education is not a priority, especially in the current situation in which people see no guarantee of employment after completing school. As a result, parents encourage their children to help and work in gold mines or in harvesting crops that make their living. These problems rooted in climate change and poverty make any attempt to improve the lives of Afghans particularly difficult and have traditionally resulted in the failure of projects. Failure has also been linked to limited resources, short-term horizon for funding, and lack of a strategic vision. As a result, NGOs and other development actors lose faith in their mission and development fatigue spreads among stakeholders. Yet genuine participatory methods may reintroduce a little hope and meaning in the development realm. These methods allow for a better grasp of the complexity of the situations and accommodate families’ multi-faceted needs. Community-based participatory action research offers a unique hope to overcome the considerable challenges of a country such as Afghanistan because it empowers the people to decide for themselves instead of the usual expert approach of imposing their vision of people’s needs and how to address those needs. 

Written by Shabir Ayubi and Khusraw Khusrawi

Edited by Mustafa Rfat, Jean-Francois Trani, and Mara McKown