As we approach the 30th Anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, we must ask ourselves: what groups of children are being left behind despite the ratification of this convention? Which groups are continually marginalised and therefore not able to enjoy the right to an adequate standard of living or an expectation for a life that will take their best interests into account? Above all, which groups are forced into dangerous and sometimes deadly situations just so that they can survive one more day? In Afghanistan, this is the reality for thousands of children. Despite numerous protocols and conventions meant to combat the practice of child labour, it remains widespread throughout the country. The current situation is dire, and the European Union must double its efforts to help the Afghan government address gaps in legislative implementation of this issue.
According to a report compiled by Human Rights Watch, at least a quarter of Afghan children between the ages of 5 and 14 are already working for a living. Many children work in the carpet-weaving or metal industries, where they face long-term development issues such as carpal tunnel syndrome or chronic back pain from the former, and cuts and burns from the latter. Other jobs, such as working in mines or in brick kilns, pose risks that are not only dangerous but also potentially deadly as workers could easily develop respiratory illnesses or suffer heatstroke. These are a mere few examples of the jobs that many children in Afghanistan find themselves doing to help provide income for their families or to pay off the debt of a family member. The fact that these children were forced to begin working as soon as they were deemed to be able-bodied, meaning that many of them never knew a childhood where they were free to explore, play, and learn about the world around them without worry.
Although Afghan law specifically deems all forms of child labour illegal, the government lacks the capacity to comprehensively enforce implementation and criminalise individuals who do not comply. According to Human Rights Watch, the Afghan Labour Inspectorate lacks the authority to impose penalties on individuals who employ children, which perpetuates the belief that this practice is normal. The European Union must fight this normalisation by helping the Afghan government to set a zero-tolerance precedent for child labour. In order to do this, the EU must urge the Afghan government to establish a minimum budget for their Ministry of Labour and combat this phenomenon. This will subsequently allow for the hiring of more labour inspectors, which are desperately needed to boost capacity and increase oversight. In addition, the EU must collaborate with the Afghan government to guarantee accountability of ministry funds, which will ensure that resources are being allocated properly.
Sadly, the commercial sector is not the only area in which there is a prevalence of child labour. There have also been occurrences of human trafficking, which can include domestic work, sexual exploitation, pickpocketing, or begging. One particularly horrifying practice as a result of human trafficking is known as bacha bazi, or boy play, where young boys are forced to dress as girls and are sexually exploited in order to provide entertainment to older men. According to the United States Bureau of International Labour Affairs, this practice still takes place in every province of Afghanistan.
The European Union must work in collaboration with the Afghan government to fight human trafficking and the practice of bacha bazi in particular. Since it has recently come to light that members of the Afghan local, national, and border police compose a large portion of individuals who participate in bacha bazi, the EU must urge the Afghan government to further enforce measures to criminalise these individuals as well as work to fight corruption in the country which allows this practice to be widespread in the first place. In order to work to eliminate other forms of human trafficking, the EU must urge the Afghan government to comprehensively implement the National Strategy for Children at Risk as well as the National Labour Policy. It does not matter how many pieces of legislation are adopted if the government does not have the capacity or the authority to enforce them. The EU must ensure that this does not remain the case in Afghanistan.
Afghan children are undoubtedly in the most vulnerable population in the country, both because of their young age and their inability to speak up for themselves. The EU must protect children who are being exploited and forced into labour have a voice by providing financial support to organisations like the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, who monitors human rights violations pertaining to children. Unfortunately, the AIHRC does not receive much assistance from the Afghan government, which weakens its ability to speak out against injustices like child labour. In fact, the last report compiled by the AIHRC regarding this topic was in 2009, and thus extremely outdated. The EU must ensure that organisations like the AIHRC are never silenced because of a lack of resources.
It is the responsibility of the EU to make sure that every child is able to grow, thrive, and live in conditions that are beneficial for their development. For children who are being exploited in Afghanistan, this is not the case. Their struggle must be known. The EU cannot leave them behind.