Afghanistan

The hell of the streets of Torkham

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Following a recent survey in the streets of Kabul, the Terre des hommes team of Torkham in its turn went to evaluate the situation of working children there. Situated on the frontier between Afghanistan and Pakistan, Torkham is a major trade crossroads. Life is especially difficult for many children, as the poverty of their families drives them to go working in the streets. At risk of violence and abuse, they also live in deplorable conditions: according to the UNHCR, only 50% of the households in this town have access to drinking water, and the health services are extremely few and far between.

Terre des hommes, through the Consortium for Child Rights, met with 753 children, 23 of them girls, who work in the streets of Torkham; some of them for as recently as one week, others have been there for up to six years. Aged from 7 to 18, the boys interviewed were on an average 13, whereas the girls averaged only 7 years of age. Only 2% of these children were Pakistani. This overwhelming majority of Afghan youngsters is due to the large number of refugees in this border area, which has suffered considerable financial problems.

Many of the children could not describe exactly what they were doing on the streets, so varied are their occupations: mechanics, transport, odd jobs in workshops, shops, hotels . . . A lot of them collect scrap iron or wood which they resell or take home, whereas others beg in the streets or are involved in all sorts of traffic between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Their earnings vary from day to day, according to what they do. The majority earn between 100 and 150 rupees a day (between 1.20 and 2 dollars), some of them earn nothing at all, as they work for someone from their own family: father, brother, uncle . . . The traffic of goods over the frontier is clearly what brings in the most money for them. One third of the youngsters interviewed spent their nights in Torkham, in rented rooms, at their place of work, or in the street.

Only 14% of these children attend school; a few pay school costs for themselves with what they earn. Of the 650 others, many have never been to school as their families are too poor to pay the costs, or else their financial support is needed at home. It can also happen that the schools are too far away from their homes, or simply do not exist in some regions. Some kids also expressed a lack of interest in school, which is often linked to low self-respect. Sometimes it is the really poor quality of the teaching which keeps children away from school. The teachers are frequently untrained to encourage the children of the streets, who are then quickly tempted to give up lessons ill-adapted to their situations.

For a long time, it has been usual in this region to send children to work, whether because the whole family has insufficient money to survive, or whether the head of the family has died. It will be a very hard task to convince the children and their parents otherwise, as this practice is deeply anchored and accepted. However, living on the streets is extremely harmful to the youngsters’ well-being, i.e. dangerous for their survival. They suffer from great poverty and exhausting working conditions. Their health is put at risk by jobs unsuitable to their physical condition and by the lack of access to clean water and healthcare services. They are, besides, at great risk of abuse and violence from their employers, when they spend the night at their places of work together with adults, or when working in hotels.

In 2006, Terre des hommes carried out a similar survey. As a consequence, 115 children were reintegrated with their families and (re)took the road to school. But today this survey has shown that the children are encouraged by their poverty-stricken families to go back onto the streets in Torkham. The parents must also be supported, until they find other means of meeting their financial household needs. The activities already developed to protect these children will be strengthened so as to be able to help them better. Terre des hommes and its partners run three centres in Torkham where the kids can go to play together and get a basic education, especially on their rights and on the fundamental principles of hygiene. Groups of children and the committees for protection (bringing together parents, teachers, Mullah and community leaders) have also been set up with the task of informing children, parents and communities about the dangers of the streets, and of suggesting alternative solutions. Terre des hommes is also working on the authorities of the country and national and international humanitarian organisations so that all the children can be looked after, and that parents and youngsters can access basic services (water, health, protection, work…).