Impoverished parents and organised gangs routinely exploit children for profit.
By Ozra Aziz
Farishta lay on the ground by a busy road junction in the centre of Herat city, begging alongside two boys the 40-year-old said were her grandsons.
The young children, dressed in flimsy clothes despite the wintry weather, seemed drowsy and unable to feel the cold.
“I give them sleeping pills every morning,” Farishta told IWPR. She said that she used to beg on the streets alone, but only managed to earn a pittance.
However, ever since she started bringing her grandchildren with her, drugging them so that they would spend hours asleep by the roadside, she had been earning eight to ten dollar each day.
Passersby, she said, were much more sympathetic.
“There are still nice people living in this world,” she continued, “because a short while ago a man and woman came up to me and said that they would pay me a sum each month if I stopped making my grandsons sleep on the roadsides.”
She continued, “I didn’t accept their request because I make more money begging on the streets than any amount they would pay me monthly.”
Activists in the northern province of Herat are warning that local government is doing little to address the rampant exploitation of children by street beggars and gangs.
Officals argue that the problem is endemic across the whole of the country, and that they are helping vulnerable children as best they can with limited resources.
The government banned street-begging in 2008 and set up a commission together with the Afghan Red Crescent Society (ARCS) to combat the practice.
In reality, these efforts have had little effect and men and women begging alongside babies and children remains a common sight.
Most of the children appear to be sleeping, but in fact have often been given opium or other narcotic drugs to keep them subdued and help win public sympathy. Sometimes, women even “rent” their children out to other beggars at a daily rate.
Herat police spokesman Abdul Rauf Ahmadi said that an even greater threat were the gangs who ran teams of organised beggars.
In recent years, the police had run a number of operations to break up such organised exploitation, he continued. Children extracted from these situations were either returned home, if their parents agreed to keep them a way from the gangs in future, or introduced to the probationary system.. Others were sent to the local Shahed orpahange, run by by the department of labour and social affairs, which currently has around 250 residents.
“As a result of a special operation in May 2016, Herat police were able to arrest the head of a gang that abused and exploited eight children,” Ahmadi explained.
“Children from poor families were hired to beg and steal goods,” he said. “After police arrested the head of the gang, four children aged under 15 were sent to the juvenile rehabilitation centre and the other four children were sent to the Shahed orphanage.”
Mirwais Amini, head of children’s rights support and protection at the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) in Herat, said that such abuse was now a major challenge in the province.
Many children were used to smuggle drugs and beg for money or were sexually exploited.
“In 2013, the AIHRC with the cooperation and help of Herat’s department of labour and social affairs began identifying and picking up children who had been exploited,” he said. “As a result of our investigations, we brought in ten children who had been forced to beg for these gangs.”
Some had been returned to their parents and others sent to the Shahed orphanage.
“Families that agree to hire their children out to [professional] beggars are uneducated and many are impoverished,” he continued, adding that children were particularly vulnerable to exploitation by drug addicts, who in turn gave them narcotics so as to make begging easier.
“According to AIHRC’s statistics, there are about 60,000 child addicts throughout Afghanistan and most of these children are beggars.”
Mohammad Yaqub is the director of the Shakhsar Institute, an Afghan NGO dedicated to supporting the rights of children.
He said that state institutions had simply failed to address the problem.
“Every year, government officials talk about collecting all street children and children who are abused and exploited, but they have yet to take even basic steps.”
He continued, “If the govenement worked with charitable foundations to start collecting vulnerable children, all the orphans and all the exploited children would be brought in in less than a month.”
He said that local officials had ignored the results of a survey his institute carried out in 2012 which he claimed showed the real extent of the problem.
“About 55 per cent of men and women [we questioned] earned a lot of money begging in Herat and about 25 per cent of these beggars exploited children and saw their incomes increase as a result. Moreover, around 40 per cent of street children were abused by drug dealers and thieves, some of them sexually.”
He continued, “We have repeatedly shared this issue with the officials of department of labour and social affairs, but they have always made the excuse that they don’t have enough budgetary resources. In fact, they have never even considered taking basic steps in this regard.”
Herat provincial council member Sakinah Hosseini also said that the provincial government were failing to address public concerns.
“Many local citizens have approached Herat’s provincial council to complain that children were being exploited by beggars, and we shared their complaints with officials from the department of labor and social affairs. However, nothing has been done to help these vulnerable children.”
Khaldeh Afzali, head of Herat’s department of of labour and social affair, said in response that they had been doing their best to tackle the issue of street children.
In one joint operation with the AIHRC a few years ago, she said, they had brought in 80 children at risk over just a few days. Thirty of them were returned to their families.
“We don’t have any exact figures for how many children are abused and exploited by professional street beggars,” Afzali continued, adding that there was also no dedicated government budget for the protection of children exploited by professional beggars.
That meant that many children were now simply sent to orphanages to keep them off the streets.
“In the past, they used to serve only children in Herat who were really orphans, but this year the ministry of labour and social affairs ordered that all children who are abused and exploited should be collected from around the city and transferred to state-run orphanages.”
For now, begging with children has become a way of life for many destuture people.
Torpekai, 35, lives in the Darb Malek district of Herat and has been begging on the streets for the last four years.
“My husband was killed in a dispute in the Taywarah district of Ghor in 2012 and I had no idea what would happen to me and my three children,” she told IWPR. “So I started begging.”
She continued, “At first, I begged alone, But then my neighbours advised me to give sleeping pills or drugs to my children and lay them on the side of the road, and this technique was so effective I started earning a lot by doing that. I’ve also rented my six-year-old to a woman [beggar] who pays me three dollars per day.”
This report was produced under IWPR’s Promoting Human Rights and Good Governance in Afghanistan initiative, funded by the European Union Delegation to Afghanistan.