Afghanistan’s dire political and economic situation is undermining its fight against child labour

A young Afghan boy works as a water carrier at Karte Sakhi cemetery, Kabul, in November 2021. For 10 afghanis (approximately US$0.10), he brings water to families who have come to pay their respects and wish to clean the graves of their loved ones.

On Barchi Road, one of Kabul’s main thoroughfares, a small figure darts between cars holding up a cardboard box. “10 afghanis [approximately US$0.10] for a coronavirus mask,” says the boy, who is barely seven years old. Further down the street, a little girl knocks on car windows asking for money. In Afghanistan, such scenes are commonplace.

In a 2018 report prepared with the support of the International Labour Organization (ILO), Afghanistan’s labour minister acknowledged that 29 per cent of Afghan children between the ages of five and 17 are engaged in child labour. Human Rights Watch (HRW) had previously reported that a quarter of Afghan children between the ages of five and 14 work for a living, often for long hours, under dangerous conditions and for little pay. These figures are merely estimates: the conditions of war and isolation affecting part of the rural population have made it difficult for government officials and NGOs to obtain an accurate picture. But even these estimates show just how widespread and deeply rooted the phenomenon is in Afghan society, where 45 per cent of the population is under 15 years old.

The practice of child labour is in fact illegal in Afghanistan. In April 2010, the country ratified two key treaties in the fight against child labour: ILO Convention 182 on the worst forms of child labour and Convention 138 on minimum age. Under Afghan law, the minimum age of employment is 18. Minors between the ages of 15 and 17 may work under certain conditions, provided that the work is not arduous, requires less than 35 hours per week and constitutes a form of vocational training. Children aged 14 and under are prohibited from working.