A Eurasianet partner post from RFE/RL
Thousands of children roam the dusty streets and grimy alleyways of Afghanistan, working to earn desperately needed money for their families.
The sight of shabbily-dressed children, sometimes as young as three years old, is a common one around the military bases and shopping areas where they ply their trades under the blazing sun of summer or the biting cold of winter.
Many sell merchandise -- chewing gum, magazines, or even International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) memorabilia. Others polish shoes, wash cars or dispense good luck from a can of burning herbs known as an "espand."
Poverty and insecurity is forcing an increasing number of Afghan children to work and beg on the streets. And with the rising number of street kids -- estimated at 50,000 in Kabul alone, according to the United Nations -- comes an increase in cases of child abuse.
Mohammad Yousif heads the Afghan nongovernmental organization Aschiana, which provides services, support, and programs to underprivileged children. He says his organization has witnessed a significant rise in the number of working street children who have been sexually assaulted.
Yousif says national surveys and documented cases are rare in Afghanistan, where rape and sexual abuse is a cultural taboo. But he maintains that the visible increase is a major cause for concern.
"The families don't want to make a lot of the cases public, [or go] to the media," he says. "It is not easy to know how many cases happen, but there is sexual abuse ongoing for the children without protection, and without support from the family, and without the support of the government."
Yousif says the number of street children has risen from 38,000 in 2003 to over 60,000 this year, and attributes the spike to mass influxes of refugees fleeing Iran and Pakistan, drought, and insecurity, which has forced many families to leave their homes.
And in many cases, Yousif says, the burden of supporting the family has fallen on children.
That was the case for one 12-year-old boy from Kandahar, who declined to give his name when speaking to RFE/RL.
As a result of his family's tough financial situation, he has been forced to quit school and work on the streets.
Like a growing number of street children in Afghanistan, he says he has been sexually assaulted.
The boy claims to have been stopped one day by two policemen along the side of a road. He says they accused of stealing 20,000 afghanis (approx. $415), bundled him into a police car, and whisked him away.
"But before we reached the district center, the driver took a turn and went on another road to where the police commander was," he says.
"He told me that I hadn't stolen any money and that I was brought there to be raped. They threw me into a room. I told them what they were doing was not what a Muslim would do."
The boy says he was repeatedly raped by the three men, after which they abandoned him by the side of the road bloodied and in tears.
Children are among the biggest victims of Afghanistan's endemic poverty.
My father was killed by the Taliban. I have to work every day so I have something to eat."
Thirty years of continuous war means that many children do not have fathers, or have fathers who are unable to work because of horrific injuries suffered in combat.
Moreover, their mothers are not able to work due to cultural constraints preventing them from working outside the home.
In Amin's case, his father was killed during the civil war when he was only a few years old. Although he was taken in by his relatives, he maintains that he must work to survive.
"I can't go to school because I'm an orphan," he says. "My father was killed by the Taliban. I have to work every day so that I have something to eat."
According to UNICEF, more than 30 percent of schoolchildren are working on the streets in Afghanistan and are often their family's sole breadwinners. This means that more than 3 million children are not receiving an education.
More fortunate children, like Hasib, who is eight years old, attend school in the morning and work in the evenings.
"I wake up early in the morning and go to school," he says. "I spend half of the day at school and the second half I sell tea on the streets. We don't have money at home. The money that I earn, we use to buy food."
Limited Access To Education
The international community has spent billions of dollars over the past decade to rebuild the country and improve the lives of Afghans.
But Nader Naderi, a commissioner at the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, says that this money has not benefited the country's children.
"Children haven't benefited from the development and improvements other Afghans have witnessed," he says. "Many children are still deprived of basic education and are killed because of the fighting. The future of Afghan children, therefore, is a mixed picture of both hope and fear."
Yousif, meanwhile, says the Afghan government and the international community must invest more in education -- a step he hopes will decrease the number of street kids.
"Children should have access to education and vocational training," he says. "When they have skills and an education, in the future, their lives will be secure. No one will be able to abuse these children."
RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this report