By Jennifer Heath
"War is not healthy for children and other living things" is a truism that has been ignored from the beginning of human life on our planet. And nowhere, in the past forty years, has it been truer than in Afghanistan, whose children endure poverty, social inequality, invasion, civil war, occupation, displacement, and untold atrocities. Afghanistan's wars, like all wars, have been fought on the backs of the innocent. Its rehabilitation depends on the well-being of its children. Their destiny is ours.
Having included a good deal of material about children in an earlier volume about Afghan women, Ashraf Zahedi and I felt it appropriate to assemble a kind of "sequel-in-spirit" to examine in more detail what childhood and youth mean in Afghanistan. Women and children are, after all, inseparable. Although we are not experts in child development, we felt it was essential in discussions about Afghanistan to put children at the forefront of the conversation. Around 57 percent of Afghanistan's population is thought to be under the age of eighteen. One in five Afghans is a school-age child, the highest proportion of school-age children in the world. No Afghan under thirty-five years old has ever known peace in her country.
There are a number of excellent books for younger readers about Afghan children, such as Afghan Dreams: Young Voices of Afghanistan (2008), by Tony O'Brien and Mike Sullivan, and Kids of Kabul: Living Bravely Through a Never-Ending War (2012), by Deborah Ellis (other titles are listed in a selected bibliography below). These give fascinating, realistic, uplifting accounts of children and their individual stories and are invaluable for broadening the global perspectives of Western youngsters. To our knowledge this is the first full-length, comprehensive book for adults devoted to Afghan children, although there are numerous excellent reports—many focusing on the plights of girls and women—from the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the World Health Organization (WHO), Save the Children, medica mondiale, and other dedicated humanitarian organizations, as well as organizations like the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU), whose exemplary work we have relied on here and in other projects.
We seek as full a picture as possible, with historical background leading to insights, observations, and narratives of children's lives in the present, as close to the ground as we can get, with comprehensive solutions and modest suggestions for social policy toward the future. Obviously, we could not cover everything. We took a holistic approach, calling on the expertise of twenty-three accomplished scholars, humanitarian workers, researchers, and journalists, most with actual, extended experience inside the country. The contributors' distinctive voices, approaches, themes, and backgrounds are meant to be layered, to coincide and converse, to reflect the intricacies, multiple truths, and rhizomic realities of children's lives in Afghanistan.
It is almost impossible to avoid a topical book about Afghanistan. Events move rapidly. News outlets and the Internet become primary sources. Regrettably, there is no dependable census and indeed figures presented in this book are by and large estimates and vary, based on methods of gathering data and for what purpose.
We have tried to assemble a book that confronts the real challenges that Afghan children and youth face, the diversities and complexities, the impacts of socioeconomic, political, and cultural factors that shape the lives of girls and boys from birth to their mid-twenties, and consider their experiences in disparate social settings. There are and always have been multiple Afghanistans: Kabul, modern, multicultural, and Western-mediated, from where we get most of our information; Herat, Kandahar, Bamiyan, Mazar-i-Sharif, and other cities with quite dissimilar attitudes and populations; and villages and towns isolated in mountains and valleys populated by people—Pashtun, Hazara, Tajik, Uzbek, and others—whose ways of life stretch back long before Islam entered Afghanistan in the seventh century CE. Still another Afghanistan is comprised of the externally and internally displaced, many of whom will never be able to resettle in their ancestral homes.
As Nancy Hatch Dupree writes, "It is always dangerous to generalize about Afghanistan where the intricate geographic and cultural mosaic is so complex. It is especially foolhardy to make sweeping statements at this time when new political tiles are being inserted roughly with no smooth fit."
The Way We Were
The wars that began in 1979 with the invasion of the Soviet Union5 have impinged on every facet of Afghanistan's diverse society. It seems almost impossible to recall that there was once stability. In order to offer an intimate, historical description of childhood in Afghanistan, we open this anthology with Amina Kator-Mubarez's "Before the Wars: Memories of Childhood in the Pre-Soviet Era," interviews of Afghans ranging in age from ninety-nine to sixty-four, who were fortunate to be children during peacetime. Most are university-educated and from at least marginally privileged backgrounds. The eldest, called Hasib Nusratty, was born during Amir Habibullah's reign. Habibullah (r. 1901–1919) is said to have begun the slow process of Westernization/modernization (even building the first golf course). Briefly—for it is not possible here to give more than a quick recitation of Afghanistan's history—until Habibullah opened Afghanistan's first secondary school, Habibia, for boys, education was pretty much restricted to homeschooling, or, for most of the rural poor, no schooling. (In chapter 16, "Primary and Secondary Education: Exponential Growth and Prospects for the Future," Omar Qargha gives a more complete history.)
Habibullah's son, Amanullah (r. 1919–1929), came to the throne determined to modernize Afghanistan, heavily influenced by his father-in-law and prime minister, the great intellectual Mahmud Beg Tarzi, during a period when Reza Shah in Iran and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in Turkey were thrusting their countries into development and initiating reforms of all kinds. Under Amanullah's rule, secular-based education, including the first primary school for girls, Masturat School, was established. But Amanullah—whose reign was characterized by Tarzi as "a building lacking a foundation"—moved too fast and was forced to abdicate. After a series of violent events, the throne was taken by Nadir Shah, who pulled back on what were seen as radical gestures suited only to a minority of liberal, urban elite. Nadir was assassinated in 1933, and his nineteen-year-old son, Zahir Shah, the last king of Afghanistan, took over. Zahir approached modernization with caution, moving the country forward, as interviewees in "Before the Wars" note, slowly, but steadily. He was overthrown in a bloodless coup by his cousin Daoud Khan in 1973, signaling the beginning of the political upheaval that led inexorably to the long wars.
Toward the end of Zahir's rule, Afghanistan boasted more than two thousand schools for boys and nearly the same number for girls, most located in and near cities. There were also madrassas, mosque schools, but in those years, as Kator-Mubarez's interviewees point out, they did not serve radical or political agendas.
Childhood in Afghanistan, even among the elite, bore little resemblance to modern Western notions of what being a child means. In 1973, anthropologist Louis Dupree wrote:
Sub-teen boys [in Afghan non-urban society] begin to assist their fathers in the fields, or, if nomadic, learn to ride, shoot, and herd. They can no longer play freely with female counterparts. Childhood is over; adulthood begins. . . . [C]hildren have no adolescence, no transitional, educational period among their contemporaries away from their families to prepare them for the world they enter as adults. The young Afghan boy from ten to twelve (or even younger) moves directly into an adult world. Adolescence is primarily a function of a literate, pluralistic society. . . . Some Westerners remain in adolescence until past thirty, undergoing training or graduate studies to enable them to take their places in the adult world. . . . [O]nce the American child enters the public school system, he spends more time away from his nuclear family than with it. He develops new sets of interpersonal, institutional relationships, and usually these change constantly through life, whereas, on the whole, the rural Afghan child keeps the same interpersonal institutional relationships within his immediate kinship unit.
A sub-pubescent Afghan girl helps look after her younger brothers and sisters, as well as the village livestock. Before she reaches nine or ten years of age, her mother teaches her to grind wheat and corn, fetch water, cook, mend and wash clothes, make dung patties . . . a thousand other odds and ends a woman must know to be a good wife and mother.
In one form or another, this traditional way of childhood continues, but nowadays warped, as traumatized Afghans maneuver the globalized world that has been forced upon them and struggle to reconstruct and rediscover themselves amid continued insecurity.
Many Afghans remember the years up to the 1979 Soviet invasion as a "Golden Era," frequently symbolized in the memories of Kabulis and other urbanites by women wearing mini.skirts while modernization progressed heartily. In some ways, it was indeed "golden," but the Western glitter belonged to a tiny element of society. Then, as now, there were cavernous gaps between rich and poor, but at least there was some stutter-step movement toward better opportunities.
With the Soviet invasion, the world for all Afghans was flipped upside down, their survival threatened or destroyed. It seemed only to get worse when the Soviets left in 1989, sparking the first phase of a civil war between factions of Mujahedin16 vying to fill the power vacuum and bringing fresh horrors, particularly to urban areas. During the Soviet occupation, the United States (working through Pakistan with Saudi Arabian aid) armed and supported the Mujahedin.17 But when at last the Soviets withdrew and the Cold War was officially declared ended in 1992, the USSR and the U.S. agreed to conclude military and financial aid to Afghanistan, leaving the country isolated, suffering, and helpless. A chance was ignored for the U.S. to help rebuild and thus bring stability to the country and much of the rest of the world.
Meanwhile, a Sunni Islamist and Pashtun nationalist movement calling itself Taliban ("students" or "seekers") was quietly massing and training in Pakistan. In 1994, the movement took Kandahar and in 1996 it conquered Kabul, then spread out across the country. Many welcomed the Taliban as liberators and bringers of peace. Various Mujahedin fled north, where they formed the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan, or Northern Alliance. The Taliban conducted a notorious reign of terror, at first supported by the U.S. government (again through its allies, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia), motivated by the possibility of an oil pipeline project, as well as the hope that the Taliban would "tighten the noose around Iran." Thousands of girls were thrown out of schools. Boys, often orphans, were conscripted into madrassas, where by then their educations consisted mainly of blind recitations of the Qur\'an and indoctrination into religious fundamentalist politics. Men as well as women were subjected to the Taliban's draconian measures. Much was forbidden, from uninhibited movement to music to books to toys to children's freedom to play. Nancy Hatch Dupree writes that children, "denied the right to play became hard to manage and emotionally insecure. . . . Sub-teenage boys recruited by the militia were given a license to beat and berate their elders in public for being inappropriately dressed or for not attending mosques on time. This struck at deeply rooted traditions of showing respect for elders."
A great deal has been written about Taliban brutality, and in this anthology, several authors necessarily hark back on it, as well as on the cruel, chaotic oppression brought by Mujahedin leaders. War plays tricks on faith and social structures, as well as on innocence and compassion. Thus, conservative and repressive attitudes quite naturally continue in Afghanistan, even as a "new" Taliban—now a catchall for drug traffickers, warlords, bandits, ideologues, the impoverished, and the unemployed—have resurged and gained strength since the invasion by U.S. and allied forces that brought the regime down in 2001.
The fall of the Taliban—and the influx of billions of dollars in aid for reconstruction—at last offered hope. But by 2003, the United States had shifted its attention to Iraq, once again turning its back on Afghanistan. Promised funding for reconstruction dwindled; ravenous war profiteers expanded operations into Baghdad. Across the years, particularly in rural areas, many programs and much hope have disappeared for lack of money and security. The bloodshed, hunger, disease, exposure, lack of medical treatment, environmental degradation, and other injustices continue.23 Corruption has multiplied, both within the Afghan government—encouraged by bribes from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency—and beyond the Afghan government—hand-in.glove with contractors. In the face of constant and convoluted conflict, Afghans seem to be in perpetual motion, displaced internally and externally, but no longer as welcome to take refuge in Pakistan, Iran, or elsewhere.
In "Narratives of Afghan Childhood: Risk, Resilience, and the Experiences that Shape the Development of Afghanistan as a People and a Nation," Anne E. Brodsky's interviewees tell how all these wars—fighting in them, fleeing from them, growing up with them as continual backdrop—have molded the aspirations, daily lives, identities, and social roles of Afghan children.
Much of what Kator-Mubarez and Brodsky reveal goes unseen and unheard by Westerners, whose information comes too often from exoticized and sensationalized sources. In "Jumping Rope in Prison: The Representation of Afghan Children in Film," Teresa Cutler-Broyles considers how Afghan children are depicted and what they signify in four popular movies from India, Afghanistan, Great Britain, and the U.S. (films featuring Afghan children are listed below in a selected filmography).
Among the films Cutler-Broyles examines is In This World, directed by Michael Winterbottom in 2002, which looks at the desperate, perilous migrations of Afghan youngsters into Europe. We regret that space has not allowed us to explore the realities for unknown numbers of Afghan boys—some as young as twelve-.wandering alone across Europe, seeking work and new lives as conditions at home have become increasingly difficult.
Ties That Bind: The Family in Rebound
The family has always been the center of Afghan life. "Family bonds are normally extremely close," Nancy Hatch Dupree writes. Traditionally,
the hierarchical structure within families leaves little room for individualism, for senior male members, the ultimate arbiters, maintain family honor and social status by ensuring all members conform to prescribed forms of acceptable behavior. Nonconformist behavior invites social ostracism and community pressure becomes a formidable control factor, even within modern urbanized settings. Males, therefore, learn to exercise their authority at an early age. Very young brothers often chastise their older, post-puberty sisters for momentarily stepping beyond the bounds of seclusion.
Time and necessity have shifted and reshaped family dynamics along with the roles of women, yet, "as shaky as it is, in some instances," Dupree continues, "the family is the only stable institution available," and although "Afghanistan has changed, in many ways irreversibly . . . much is still recognizable."
Dupree has been profoundly involved in Afghan life since the early 1960s. In addition to her invaluable work about the family—and all that goes with it from etiquette to rhetoric to cultural heritage, preservation, and education—other scholar-practitioners have produced essential volumes, such as Aging and Family in an Afghan Refugee Community (1996), by Patricia Omidian, and Culture and Customs of Afghanistan (2005), by Hafizullah Emadi, books that are far removed from the giddy popular fare that has too often misdefined Afghan women and families.
The topic of the Afghan family merits its own comprehensive volume. While we do not deal exclusively with the family, there is no element of this book that does not somehow touch upon it.
Deborah Smith's "Love, Fear, and Discipline in Afghan Families," considers corporal punishment and is an objective report based on field studies undertaken by AREU. The chapter does not demonize the culture or judge everyday violence against children as predominantly Afghan. Verbal abuse of children, corporal punishment, and domestic violence are pervasive worldwide. The Pashtu proverb che dab nawi adab nawi—"If there is no stick, there will be no discipline"—echoes the Western proverb, "Spare the rod and spoil the child." In any book about children, it is worth examining the subject, for, among other things, corporal punishment (whether a mild spanking or a fierce beating) can determine levels of violence passed on through the family that radiate into the society with profound impacts. While corporal punishment can lead to real physical harm, escalating into abuse, particularly when the parent or authority figure is under extreme stress, the psychological harm can to some extent be mitigated, depending on the society in which the children grow up, its norms and expectations, and the internal strength of the family. However, international campaigns against corporal punishment—whether domestic, in schools, or judicial.-emphasize that degrading punishment violates a child's dignity and human rights to be free, and research "now shows that violence to children, even in the form of legally sanctioned corporal punishment, increases the likelihood that they will perpetrate violence on others throughout their lives, including assaulting other children, violent teenaged crime, and ultimately domestic violence and elder abuse."
Esther Hyneman's chapter, "Children Who Live with Their Mothers in Prison," describes a grim side of the Afghan family in crisis. Afghanistan is not alone in detaining children with their parents. In 2008, it was estimated that 226 children in Afghanistan were living with their incarcerated mothers, while at about the same period, the American Civil Liberties Union estimated that two hundred children were being held with their parents at one immigrant prison in the United States.33 Hyneman writes about the harrowing effects on children living in restrictive and unhealthy conditions with mothers whose crimes may be no more than to be unwanted by husbands and family (although some have indeed committed real, even severe, offenses). The children, some born behind bars, are trapped in a kind of airless purgatory, with few hopes of normalcy in the outside world and only their incarcerated mothers to look after them.
"While marriages are linked with considerable material exchanges of cash, land, and herds," Dupree writes (and in today's economically contorted Afghanistan, high bride prices have soared astronomically),
liaisons between close kin are designed to keep economic and political resources within the extended family, and serve either to perpetuate or modify local networks and alliances. Furthermore, in this patrilineal structure, when a girl moves to her husband's home, all decisions pertaining to her rights and duties are transferred to the husband's family. One often hears it said that a girl is merely a guest in the house of her parents, where she prepares for life in her husband's household. Although the motivation for some arranged marriages—child marriages, compensatory exchanges, the levirate, political and social accommodations—can be decidedly discriminatory, in most, close bonds normally flourish based on affection, mutual support, and respect.
Sharifa Sharif brings child and forced marriage into focus with "Little Brides and Bridegrooms: Systemic Failure, Cultural Response." Child brides in Afghanistan are a favorite topic for the Western media, who pick many of the most extreme (and photogenic) examples as illustrations of an apparently savage, pedophilic society, and overlook the nuances of family alliances, marriage contracts, how marriages are decided, by whom, and with what results (and, as Dupree notes, not all arranged marriages are unhappy). Sharif reminds us that early marriage is a worldwide phenomenon, not restricted to Afghanistan, and she makes clear that in cultures bound by tight clan politics, neither girls nor boys have choices (this, too, can impact family violence).
Although to what extent child marriage in Afghanistan actually takes place has not been documented precisely, it continues into the twenty-first century for a myriad of reasons, and is accepted, Sharif writes, as age-old convention—despite laws against it. Ancient customs, once viable in an isolated country, particularly in highly secluded rural areas, are no longer workable nor, as the outside world has closed in on the Afghan people, should malpractices—such as the outright sale or trade of young women, some underage—any longer be tolerated by Afghans. The psychological and physical consequences are too dire.
Still, Dupree reminds us, "amidst the confusion and the ambiguities, the basic integrity of the family survives." And if it can continue to do so—even somewhat redefined—then there is certainly hope for the children.
Despite customs and millennia-old traditions, despite paralyzing hardships and impossible odds, we mustn't underestimate Afghan creativity and flexibility. For instance, a group of widows—Afghanistan's most vulnerable women—have built a village within the capital city, Kabul. There are upwards of 1 million Afghan widows, whose average age is thirty-five. In 2009, there were approximately fifty thousand in Kabul, often living in abandoned buildings, many non-literate and most unskilled, surviving by soliciting sex and/or begging in the streets, some with their children. On a hill in Kabul, now called Tapaye Zanabad—"the hill that women built"—hundreds of widows have been squatting for a decade, building mud houses and creating a loose community. They have formed a barebones woman's association; there is a drinking water supply and spotty electricity. The deprivation continues, Tapaye Zanabad is by no means ideal, but it is a sign of ingenuity, shifting paradigms, and the determination to endure.
Survival by Any Means
Billions of dollars have been paid toward Afghanistan's reconstruction, but little has actually made it to the Afghan people, let alone to fulfill the needs of children. As of 2009, Afghanistan received only about $57 per capita from international aid. Matt Waldman, former head of policy for Oxfam International in Afghanistan, reported that on average in 2008, donors spent just $7 million per day. Forty percent of aid money has funneled back into the donor countries as corporate profits and extremely high consultants' salaries. Although outside expertise is needed on numerous fronts, little money is actually spent on the Afghan workforce, where it can do the most good for the country.
"It is almost impossible to determine where government policies begin and [international financial institutions] end," Bank Information Center consultant Anne Carlin writes. Projects overlap or compete, and there is little oversight, despite feeble attempts by the Afghan government to glean and register the hundreds of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that followed the U.S.–led invasion.41 The government has almost no credibility. In January 2010, the UN reported that Afghans paid $2.5 billion in bribes to public officials during a period of twelve months, across 2009.
United States economic and humanitarian aid to Afghanistan fell from $4.1 billion in 2010 to $2.5 billion in 2011 and has been steadily dropping.43 "The humanitarian space is decreasing as communities become more insecure," Samuel Lowenberg writes. "Only 60 percent of the country is accessible to humanitarian response. For the remaining 40 percent, where the fighting is the worst, aid agencies can only guess at the problems people are facing."44 In 2013, the New York Times reported a huge increase in the number of aid workers killed, making the country "by far the most dangerous place in the world for relief work." Through November "there were 237 attacks . . . with 36 people killed, 46 wounded and 96 detained or abducted. This is triple the figure for all of 2012."
Meanwhile, winter after winter, deadly cold takes the lives of refugee children. In 2011/2012, there were at least one hundred confirmed deaths of Afghanistan's internally displaced persons, but funding for assistance—emergency winter supplies, winterization kits, blankets, warm clothes, tarpaulins, clothing, stoves, water, and fuel—has been elusive.
It is obvious that if the lion's share of funding had not profited contractors, warlords, or corrupt government officials, more orphanages—in some cases hotbeds of Dickensian abuse-.could be healthy, nurturing places for Afghanistan's 1.6 million orphans. Shelters for women and girls might be more plentiful. Medical programs, hospitals, and clinics might be more accessible. Skills and literacy training might be more available. Thanks to corruption, insecurity, and ongoing combat, girls' and boys' schools have closed in outlying districts, where, in any event, the Afghan government seems never to have put sufficient money or thought into hiring adequate teachers and maintaining them.
These are cursory examples of how lack of funding affects Afghan children, who—as Amanda Sim demonstrates in "Confronting Child Labor in Afghanistan," and Wahid Omar writes in "The Parakeet Boys: Performing Education in the Streets of Kabul"-.must work to help feed and clothe themselves and their families.
Children have always worked in Afghanistan, but their labors before the wars were as often as not forms of apprenticeship. The 1973 International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention on Minimum Age for Admission to Employment defines child labor by age: eighteen as the minimum for performing hazardous work and fifteen for "light work." The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states in Article 32 that children should be protected from "performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child's education, or to be harmful to the child's health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral, or social development." As Sim notes, in Afghanistan, the Labor Code mandates the minimum working age at fifteen for non-hazardous work and eighteen for hazardous work. It is estimated that 1.2 million children perform hazardous work, 3 million children have no access to education,50 and even very young children barely out of toddlerhood are laboring at all kinds of tasks, some extremely dangerous. The so-called "worst forms of child labor" are described in the 1999 ILO Convention as sex work and drug trafficking—booming trades among young Afghan girls and boys, with, in some cases, whole families involved.
Children working on the streets are predominantly boys between the ages of eleven and fourteen. According to the 2010 Consortium for Street Children,
there are no accurate socio-economic and demographic data in Afghanistan and . . . there are no records on the number of street children in Afghanistan, although estimates show the numbers have increased dramatically in recent years. Herat, for example, has 5,000 to 10,000 street children. Estimates in Kandahar range from 7,000 street working children to 32,000 street children. In Kabul, the estimates on street children raised from 37,500 in 2003 to 50,000 in 2007, then sharply increased in 2009 to 70,000. Aschiana Foundation estimates the number of street children in Afghanistan is 600,000.
As the already inadequate sums that reach poor Afghans and their children dry up, fears have naturally grown that child labor will worsen.
One steady employer is the Taliban. With the wave of humanitarian aid in 2001, hundreds of facilities—schools, clinics, literacy and vocational training programs—were created especially for women and girls. Indeed, funding was more likely when a project was for females, often leaving ordinary men and boys to flounder unaided, inspiring Taliban recruitment. Even men with relatively temperate views, but no prospects, have increasingly joined or rejoined mercenary war-and drug-lord armies or the Taliban.
In "Child Soldiering in Afghanistan," Delphine Boutin considers the reasons Afghan children become combatants and the outcomes. While forced recruitment is pervasive, she notes, children also join armed forces voluntarily, motivated by a divided society with intolerable levels of poverty, unemployment, and inequality, as well as poor educational and vocational training systems and the breakdown of law and order.
Hangama Anwari's "Legal Protection: Offering Aid and Comfort" discusses the massive obstacles facing children, particularly those at risk of exploitation and violence, who seek justice and meaningful protection in the Afghan judicial system. Discrimination against children is evident across gender, age, and class, and the government's capacity to provide assistance to those who are not able to support their families is extremely limited.
The age of criminal responsibility in Afghanistan is thirteen, but, in 2012, "Afghanistan: Child Justice Brief" reported that only 10 percent of children are registered at birth and "the majority do not know their age or date of birth. Although methods are employed to establish children's ages by criminal justice agencies, these are not always accurate. [This] makes it difficult to ensure that children in the criminal justice system are of the legal age of criminal responsibility."
In some provinces, juvenile rehabilitation centers exist exclusively for boys. UNICEF reports that only 15 percent of children found in the juvenile rehabilitation centers are female. "This reflects that girls seem less likely to come into conflict with the law, given that they are restricted in movement outside their homes, and that many girls are processed in the adult system."
There have been, Anwari notes, countless missed opportunities to protect children, although the Constitution of Afghanistan puts weighty value on the family. Here, she posits, ancient customs relating to the care of children could be utilized with positive results. Ongoing opposition to the Elimination of Violence Against Women Law only extends the abuse, harming children by denying their mothers human rights and by leaving the door open for early marriage and other exploitations.56 There are a great many justified fears that, particularly as the drawdown of U.S. troops approaches, a rollback of women's and girls' rights, already underway, will proceed with impunity.
Not only are Afghans daily facing the hard work of repairing decades of psychological and physical damage, but in doing so they must resolve clashes of time and traditions. The fetishizing and imposition of one-size-fits-all Western-style democracy and Western ideals and ideas are not always necessarily appropriate for a tribal, dynastic society and can result in backlash. In Afghanistan, more often than not, tradition trumps law. Anwari's suggestion that traditions be exploited for the betterment of children's lives is more than sensible.
To Be Whole in Mind and Body
In "Children's Health: the Challenge of Survival," Steven Solter offers hope. He writes that although Afghan children have always had among the highest mortality rates in the world, the situation has actually improved since 2002. Vaccinations,57 training of community health workers and midwives—in a country that has the highest maternal mortality ratio in the world58—and other vital and strategically planned activities (drawing as ever on few available resources) are, bit by bit, cutting through tremendous obstacles. Children die, Solter notes, from three major causes: pneumonia, diarrhea, and malnutrition. Measles, malaria, polio, and smallpox, important causes of the past, have not been entirely eradicated, but are much reduced (refugees crisscrossing borders can be especially susceptible). Thousands of Afghan children are also debilitated by cutaneous leishmaniasis, a disabling disease transmitted by the bite of the sand fly, which leads to disfigurement usually on the face and hands, and to social stigma, particularly for women and children.
Solter notes that HIV and AIDS are not yet a major health problem for Afghan children, although UNICEF and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime believe that the potential is there and imminent with the marked increase of drug addiction in recent years: 7 percent of the adult population of 14 million uses narcotics. Male-to-male sex with children and intravenous drug use, transmissions from mother to child, and simple accidental punctures of children sifting through garbage littered with used syringes are among the frightening factors that contribute to children's vulnerability.
With profound poverty, undernutrition is widespread, made worse as agricultural fields have been strafed, the ground poisoned with weapons chemicals, and sophisticated, millennia-old irrigation systems destroyed. In 2009, the worst drought in living memory affected all traditional food crops. Unsafe drinking water, lack of sanitary facilities, and fertilizers from untreated human and animal waste all contribute to Afghanistan's appalling statistics, as do harsh winters in areas that are unreachable either because of the terrain or armed combat or both. In "Food Security and Nutrition for Afghan Children," Fitsum Assefa, Annalies Borrel, and Charlotte Dufour meticulously detail the challenges brought on by lack of nutritious, vitamin-rich food (as well as knowledge of healthy infant feeding and other practices), and describe the opportunities for ameliorating the problems.
Sports are agents of socialization (along with family, religion, school, peer groups, and mass media), and teach children leadership, self-confidence, and to identify, then reach, their goals—essential skills for successful lives. Although many organized sports impose prohibitive expenses for uniforms, equipment, or club fees, youngsters—mostly urban-.have embraced them with high enthusiasm. Girls are frequently discouraged from participating, but many nonetheless excel in soccer, boxing, volleyball, or hockey. Some women, such as sprinter Robina Jalali at the Olympics, have moved beyond the local arena.
Most youngsters in Afghanistan have limited time for play. Toys, such as dolls or slingshots, are useful in training rural children for future responsibilities as wives and mothers, herders and hunters. Informal games resemble those of kids worldwide: tag, blind man's bluff, stickball, hopscotch, bujul.bazi (similar to marbles), and wrestling. And, of course, kite-flying, as Westerners learned from Khaled Hosseini's best.selling novel The Kite Runner, is a favorite urban sport, and though banned by the Taliban (and not much practiced when the Mujahedin were shooting up the cities), it returned quickly after the allied invasion. 63 Some of these games have traditionally been the exclusive prerogative of boys, but girls also play them in segregated groups or—if young enough—boys and girls play them together.
Western children spend increasingly less time outdoors, resulting in what journalist Richard Louv calls "nature deficit disorder," which presents a wide range of behavioral problems and which he says is the outcome of parental fears, restricted access to natural areas, and growing consumption of electronic media by children. Fortunately, many Afghan children—so far-.are spared the small screen, but their access to safe outdoor spaces, their opportunities to absorb and enjoy nature—perhaps the supreme healer—are constrained. Refugee camps are often comprised of trash and dust (though children are endlessly flexible and can turn even the most unpleasant places into cheerful play yards). Some of the exquisite ancient gardens and parks in Herat, Kabul, and other cities have been repaired and replanted (and many historic sites and museums rebuilt), offering breathing space, cultural lodestars, transcendence, and fun. The Kabul Zoo has been reconstructed. Zoos exercise a strong benefit in that they bring legions of children into a love for wild creatures. This can, in time, help establish a population of caring and activist adults. In 2012, Afghanistan opened its first national park at the high mountain lakes of Band-e Amir to boost tourism, but not enough Afghans are cognizant of it or can afford the long journey to get there.
Afghanistan's environmental damage is incalculable. Before the wars, the country was rich in biodiversity, but its fertile lands, its breadbaskets, and its wilderness are now devastated by persistent violence and the harsh weather patterns that follow. In 2002, the United Nations Environmental Programme conducted a basic research project and found that "forests, waters, soil, and wildlife were clearly in decline or on the brink of irreparable damage, and the resulting environmental degradation was endangering human health and compounding poverty."
Farms and grazing lands are littered with leftover landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXO), making the outdoors especially lethal for children. Hundreds are killed or maimed every year as they help with farm chores, herd livestock, hunt, fish, stroll, play games, or simply move from one destination to another. In December 2012 alone, ten girls were killed in eastern Afghanistan when a landmine exploded while they were collecting firewood, an all too recurrent tragedy. In Kabul, roughly 85 percent of UXO victims are children. The process of dismantling the ordnance is expensive and painfully slow.
Landmines are a major cause of disabilities, but there are others, such as genetic disorders sometimes caused by first-cousin marriages. In "Desperately Seeking Harun: Children with Disabilities," Lael Adams Mohib looks at how children and their families cope and follows the struggles and triumphs of several dedicated humanitarian workers.
More than forty years of combat and social injustice have bred massive mental health problems for all Afghans. Mark Eggerman and Catherine Panter-Brick have conducted studies about Afghan children's mental health,69 and in "'Life Feeds on Hope': Family Mental Health, Culture, and Resilience," they examine, among other things, "which aspects of violence and poverty are the most critical predictors of mental health status and which aspects of individual and social life best characterize the ability to overcome adversity." This is vital information if we are to help the new generation of young people to inherit Afghanistan's future.
Afghan psychologist Nahid Aziz (a founder of Rawan Online, a website focusing on psychological and mental health for Afghans)70 and scholar Zeba Shorish-Shamley have written variously about child socialization and the nature of mental health in Afghanistan, cultural perspectives, perceived causes (such as djinn—spirits—and nazar—the evil eye),71 attitudes, and methods of treatment.
Mary MacMakin, who has lived and worked in Afghanistan since the 1960s, recalls that
Shrines are the place for disturbed children and adolescents. I happened to be visiting the Jalalabad shrine years ago when an intractable thirteen-year-old girl was brought by her parents. The shrine had a row of little dirt-floored stalls where the sick were tied in or chained in if they were violent. The mullah did the healing with prayers. We returned later and the girl was "cured," ready to go home.
Events of the past decades have conspired to destroy young minds and souls. When parents are psychologically damaged, they cannot care properly for their children. When carnage and cruelty are all around and chronic, when families are shattered, when children are betrayed by adults, when they are mistreated, when they are unprotected, when they are left with little hope, children can break.
Education: Nurturing the Future
There are few enough comforts for the children of Afghanistan, but, in addition to family stability, the surest path to health, reconstruction, and lasting peace is education.
Throughout Afghanistan, where two-thirds of the population over the age of fifteen is non-literate, people are demanding schools. With the fall of the Taliban, schools began to open and young people returned from exile. In "Education in Transition: A Key Concern for Young Afghan Refugees," Mamiko Saito analyzes refugees' reactions as they adapt and make difficult transitions in language, culture, social patterns, and standards of education back home.
In "Primary and Secondary Education: Exponential Growth and Prospects for the Future," Omar Qargha describes the unprecedented growth in the numbers of schools built in recent decades and offers an inclusive analysis of how, in order for education to fully succeed, it must be tailored to the country's unique needs, balanced with universal modern curricula and standards.
Coeducation has been frowned upon since Afghan girls first began attending school in the 1920s. Sadly, schools and female students are under violent attack and there seems to be no end in sight. In the first six months of 2009, for example, sixteen bomb blasts took place on school premises and by fall, 80 percent of schools in southern Afghanistan were closed. Even home schools—re-created in the post-Taliban era as a solution to reactions against public education for girls—have shut down. Traveling long distances to rural schools located in insecure areas presents risks parents are unwilling to take for boys or girls. The situation continues to degenerate; grand promises made with the 2001 invasion have not been kept.
Today it is thought that economic growth in developing countries results from women's empowerment and equality, but what happens when the balance is tipped the other way and boys are left behind? Gender mainstreaming in Afghan development policy and the rush to create girls' schools after the Taliban defeat often neglected boys' educational needs, a mistake considering that a nation of men ignorant of history, literature, mathematics, sciences, languages, arts, political science, and so on will continue to oppress women, even educated ones, and be unable to participate fully in the creation of a strong and peaceful civil society. As educator Sakena Yacoobi writes, the slightest ability to read not only enriches lives, but can save them, too.
In refugee camps, skills can be lost within one generation: the essential knowledge of farming, for example, disappears. And the lives of boys who once apprenticed to their fathers and other male relatives have been so disrupted that many are unable to learn the skills necessary to practice a trade. Although the World Bank and the United States Agency for International Development provide some vocational training programs, they are not adequate, nor has development been sufficient—or necessarily culturally, geographically, or ecologically/sustainably appropriate—to warrant the kinds of skills training that might actually speed reconstruction and strengthen security.
A handful of valiant and trustworthy NGOs offer literacy training to young men, but funding has been more readily available for girls and women. Afghanistan's literacy rate is about 28 percent total—43.1 percent male and 12.6 percent female—and students on average have only nine years of school.
"Afghanistan cannot be a viable democracy unless its populace (including children) learn to read," Sandra Cook, co.chair of the Louis and Nancy Hatch Dupree Foundation, writes of ACKU Boxed Library Extension (ABLE), a boxed library program housed in the Afghanistan Centre at Kabul University, which
assists this goal by providing school and community libraries throughout Afghanistan. Many of the books that are distributed by ABLE are actually commissioned to Afghan authors by the ABLE editorial board, written in Dari and Pashto, and cover topics of interest to Afghans. The ABLE school libraries also contain dictionaries and other reference materials which are not written and published by ABLE.
Other NGOs, like Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan (CW4WAfghan), support community, village, and neighborhood libraries—primarily in the rural districts around Kabul—"to help reinforce literacy skills, nurture a culture of reading, and foster independent, lifelong learning." CW4WAfghan has even initiated an Afghan Women's Teen Writing Project and Teenage Writers' Workshop, and published the youngsters' poetry and prose.
We felt that focusing on discussions about early childhood and primary and secondary school education might be more productive than attempting in this book to define the intricacies of higher education in Afghanistan, which has made many giant strides since the fall of the Taliban, but remains nevertheless problematic. Higher education began in Afghanistan with the establishment of Kabul University in 1932. Today, there are about thirty-eight colleges, universities, and technical institutes throughout the country in various states of organization, repair, and academic excellence, with approximately 50,000 enrolled students. Much has been accomplished, but much more is needed, and ultimately depends on leadership at the Ministry of Higher Education, where, unfortunately, but not unusually, politics win over merit.
Textbooks published by the University of Nebraska from 1984 and 1994, which encouraged youngsters to join the Mujahedin by using exercises illustrated with images of tanks, missiles, landmines, and other weapons, were still being used in 2001. In 2012, a series of government-issue social studies textbooks for grades ten through twelve, funded by U.S. and international aid organizations, makes no mention of Afghanistan's recent history, but manages a grand jeté over forty years, leaping across the Saur Revolution, the Soviet invasion, the Mujahedin, the Taliban, and the U.S. presence. Apparently unmindful of Edmund Burke's famous warning that "those who don't know history are destined to repeat it," Afghan educators, scholars, and politicians claim they are encouraging peace and unity by pretending these events did not happen.
A 2010 study by Ahmed Khalid Fahim found that modern Afghan textbooks are "male biased in texts, illustrations, and language. The textbooks portray males in active roles mostly outside home settings while females are portrayed in more passive roles such as taking care of children, looking after domestic chores and living in subordination to males."
Also in 2010, the education ministry announced the publication of 40 million textbooks about Dari literature at the cost of $20 million, which journalist Nushin Arbabzadah describes as overflowing with misspellings, morality tales from the Qur\'an, and trivial poetry, having "no clear structure . . . not only discriminating against girls, but disregarding boys as well . . . . the books are an accurate reflection of the ministry's intellectual poverty and cultural parochialism . . . certainly not a fair representation of the diversity, wit, and eloquence of Afghan literature."
As inadequate as textbooks may be in Afghanistan, teaching styles are too frequently just as ineffectual. Louise M. Pascale has devised a method by which Afghan children can learn to read through song, and she describes her wonderful project in "Music and Literacy: A New Approach to Education." Memorization, regurgitation, drill, recitation . . . old-fashioned rote learning—which neglects art education as well-.still prevails (as does the rod) in classrooms, leaving children with little room for creativity and therefore stifling critical thinking.85 Pascale collected the songs while she was a Peace Corps volunteer in the 1960s, little realizing they would soon be in danger of extinction. She has provided an invaluable gift to the Afghan people.
Folk tales are teaching tools, too. Hoopoe Books, which bears the motto "from thinking children come thinking adults," provides children and schools with teaching stories translated into Dari and Pashto from the works of the marvelous Anglo-Afghan author Idries Shah.
Participants in Brodsky's "Narratives of Afghan Childhood" (chapter 2), repeatedly emphasize education as the road to becoming fully human, the path to peace. In 2010, Amina Kator interviewed young Afghans about their hopes and dreams for the future. All of them yearned for educations and all understood that Afghanistan's fate depends on it:
I don't let problems cause me grief. I focus solely on my studies. I study every night and sometimes when the electricity goes out, I light candles so I can continue reading. I love to read. . . . So far, it seems like education is the only answer. —Narges Mansuri, thirteen
Every child needs to be educated. Right now there are so many uneducated Afghans. The government needs to provide more educational opportunities for young and old, scholarships and financial assistance. —Ghulam Asada, eighteen
We need doctors, engineers, and lawyers, but we also need journalists, comedians, actors, investors, directors, singers. We need both men and women to contribute. We as Afghan youth must help Afghanistan flourish in all regards. There is so much to look forward to in life. —Bashir Said, eighteen
As long as I can become as educated as possible, there will be a chance that things might get better. If not, what is the use of living this life? —Lamba Otmani, twenty-two
Worldwide, social media has affected everything from marketing to massive political and social uprisings. The experiences and even the characters of young people everywhere are being shaped by it. And it is no different for Afghan youth who are able to access the Internet, as Lauryn Oates tells us in "'Thanks God for the Twitter and the Facebook! Thanks God for That!"
All this cyber expansion has opened wide new vistas. Indeed, cellphones are even being introduced that feature an application called Ustad Mobile (Mobile Teacher) and provide national curriculum courses in both Dari and Pashto, as well as mathematics.
According to Socialbakers, a market-analysis website, in 2012 Afghanistan had 397,600 Facebook users, 1.37 percent of the population. Just 2 million of Afghanistan's 30 million people have Internet access. Yet upward of 20 million Afghans are thought to have cellphones. Kabul's Nai Media Institute, which launched in January 2012 to offer diplomas in radio, television, and online broadcasting, reports that young people are rushing to study journalism, broadcasting, and media management.
Although Afghan journalists—like journalists everywhere.-struggle to maintain press freedoms and the right to free speech,90 social media and the Internet offer a creative exchange of ideas. And ideas are empowering.
As are the arts. Pascale's songbook project gives credence to the fact that arts are key components of learning in any field and must not be marginalized, treated as trivial and inconsequential. Not only do arts—and history, their blood.sibling—help shape whole, creative, and thinking human beings, offering pleasure, beauty, grace, and knowledge, thus enabling peace, not only do they offer lessons from the past and thus innovative visions for the future, but, as historian Nancy Hatch Dupree has repeatedly emphasized, it is through culture that national identity is forged and preserved. "The fundamentals of the culture remain strong," she writes, "changed in some ways but readily recognizable as uniquely Afghan. Current expectations aim to engage various cultural elements as bonding vehicles to hasten reconstruction and strengthen peace."
Young Afghans have turned enthusiastically to the visual and performing arts as forms of personal expression and unity. Joanna Sherman illustrates in "The New Storytellers of Afghanistan" that the arts (in this case theatre) provide tools to alert us to problems, expose and heal the wounds of the past and help us see them in a new light. Equally essential, the arts afford space to just be silly. All children require time to be silly (whose original meaning is "blessed"), all the more so for those who have been impacted by war.
The arts are cathartic and therapeutic, whereby the individual, the culture, and current events are reflected one against the other, serving to strengthen and make us whole. Lauryn Oates has written elsewhere about young female artists studying modernist painting, not unheard of in Afghanistan but not expected either, particularly from women and girls. Out of this have come all sorts of urgent actions, including graffiti art, courageous public expressions in a repressed society. Like poetry, an ancient and venerated art form in Afghanistan, visual art has the power to heal and to dissolve rigid certainties, a giant step toward inner and outer peace.
Perhaps because Afghanistan is primarily an oral society, music and storytelling are its natural outcropping, so the re.introduction of performance has been especially successful for children and young people. In addition to Sherman's Bond Street Theatre, which has worked for years throughout Afghanistan, training and entertaining, there are Afghan Participatory Theatre, Mobile Mini-Circus for Children, Theatre Circus Afsâna, Parwaz Puppet Theatre, the Afghan Youth Voices Festival, No Strings International (which uses puppets to teach children to avoid landmines), and more.93 With growing insecurity, these wonderful events and activities are shrinking in their mobility and ability to reach the hundreds of children who would benefit.
Ian Pounds personalizes his years of working with orphaned girls at the Afghan Child Education and Care Organization in "Six Epiphanies: Testament to Change from Inside an Afghan Orphanage," illustrating the love and joy these brave children find every day in an environment that strives to erase the pain of the past.
And yet, outside the orphanage doors, Pounds wrote in a personal email in 2012, "things are spiraling here in Afghanistan. Jihadis are getting more brazen and trying to take more control." He began receiving death threats and has finally left Afghanistan. His story is not uncommon. Many who were giving Afghan children the benefits of their talent and enthusiasm have been forced to retreat.
Do We Dare Take Responsibility for the Future of Afghan Children?
Ashraf Zahedi closes this book with "Imagining the Future," in which she considers practical actions that can be taken to improve the lot of Afghan children (and in the process the lives of the adults in charge of them) and speed the process of healing, peace, and reasonable prosperity for all Afghans. Our hope is that this book will encourage further endeavors to help Afghanistan and that the world, particularly those who have done the most damage to the country and its people, will step up and take responsibility for the repair.
Hundreds of thousands of children die as a result of direct violence; they suffer a wide range of injuries, including rape; they are disabled and have grossly inadequate access to rehabilitation services; their health suffers as conditions for safeguarding it disappear; they suffer psychologically with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, and more that can lead to further violence (and in the same vein, the moral and spiritual impacts are tremendous, resulting in loss of meaning and indifference); as children in war they are at risk of losing their moral and social structures, their communities and families, and the educational opportunities which underpin and give their lives ballast.
Child advocates often remind the Afghan government that it ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1994. It is hard to picture exactly who, claiming to be the Afghan government during the civil war era, signed the convention or whether that signature is still considered by the powers that be to have authority. Today's government must renew that commitment.
Continued, indeed redoubled, humanitarian aid is desperately needed and will be for a long time to come. Aid costs less and returns more than fighting. What's required is a surge of teachers, medical professionals, environmentalists, organic farmers, social workers, and others—a new and progressive "peace corps"—that can facilitate healing with carefully thought-out programs and support . . . paid for by money that has been lining dishonest pockets for decades. Much has improved and can continue to improve, but Afghanistan stands on a cusp and it is possible that all the gains and all the potential could slip away.
Like Afghanistan and like children everywhere, this book is an unfinished project. We have tried to highlight the needs of Afghan children, make suggestions where appropriate for ways to solve problems, uncover the possibilities that might bring lasting change. We have also tried to illustrate the spirit and beauty that define Afghan children. Regardless of geopolitics and—chronically unsound—military strategies, we cannot turn our backs. The next steps in Afghanistan's arduous journey will be taken by its growing children, and it is vital to world peace that they be healthy and whole. Will we at last take responsibility?
Afghanistan has been called the worst place on earth to be a child. For their sakes and ours, we must not let that continue.