TORKHAM, Afghanistan, 30 December 2009 - An Afghani still living in the Pacha Maina refugee camp in Pakistan, Sheila, 10, crosses the border into her own country only to work.
"I cross the border four times per day, carrying flour," she says. "On my way back I bring firewood to sell it on the market."
According to an assessment - by the non-governmental organization Terre des Hommes and UNICEF in 2006 - over 1,000 children are involved in child labour in the border area around Torkham, Afghanistan. This is around 80 per cent of all local children between 10 and 18-years-old. Like Sheila, the vast majority are of Afghan origin, and many live with their families in refugee camps in Pakistan.
Poverty at the root
In this mountainous border district of Nangarhar province, opportunities for agriculture and herding are rare. Since families are large, all members have to contribute to the household income.
The types of labor done by children like Sheila include transporting goods, collecting garbage and firewood, assisting in shops and begging. Because children are seen as less conspicuous, adult traders use them to smuggle illegal commodities like explosives or flour (the export of which Pakistan has forbidden due to its peak price) both in and out of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
As smugglers, children face tremendous risks. They are abused by police, threatened by traders or killed by explosive devices. They are also defenseless against exploitation and are paid extremely low wages - Sheila earns around $1 to $2 a day.
The physical dangers of child labour are also very real.
"In March, when I was on my way to Torkham, I was run-over by a truck," says Sheila. "When the border policemen catch us, they beat us very badly, so I was afraid and paid more attention to them than to the traffic."
After that episode, a social worker from a Torkham drop-in center found her unconscious on the street. He brought her to the hospital, saving her life.
Breaking a vicious cycle
The vast majority of children around Torkham have never attended school. Besides the poverty facing their families, there is an absence of educational services in the area - the closest school is in Pakistan and demands fees that the families cannot afford.
It is a vicious cycle in which a lack of education leads to ongoing poverty, but convincing parents to invest in their children's education remains a serious challenge.
One response is the Alliance Among Partners for Child Protection in Cross-Border Areas, an innovative approach that is linking non-governmental organizations, the United Nations/UNICEF, local authorities, and businessmen, religious leaders and parents on both sides of the border.
Beginning in 2008, some 400 children have benefited from informal education and recreational activities coordinated by the Alliance. At three 'Drop-in Centers' managed by UNICEF's NGO partner Terre des Hommes, children come in to learn, play and just be what they are - children. Sheila is one of them.
Since 2006, 300 working children have made the transition from labouring to school.
A Code of Conduct
The local government is also taking steps to protect children in the region. Since many child labourers face hazardous conditions, a Code of Conduct has been introduced in Torkham. More and more traders and shopkeepers have started to respect it, providing the children with lunch, allowing them to change their clothes once each day and to go home to their parents.
While still a long way from realizing the rights of children to rest, leisure and education, such changes can bring improvements to the health and happiness of young people in this border region.
Once on the street full-time, Sheila now smiles brightly, participating in her classes. She looks forward to a time when she will go to a formal school. Like so many other children, however, for the time being she continues to cross this dangerous border every day.