“Is the work hard on your body?” I ask.
“Ohhh, yes,” he says, without hesitation.
“Where does it hurt?
Saabir raises his right hand to give his thin upper arm a couple of squeezes.
Saabir supports eight Pashtun family members in their home in Kabul. His father died from an illness when Saabir was six; at age eight, Saabir was working in the streets, transporting items in a wheelbarrow.
In December, the House of the Afghan Parliament approved a law on the protection of children, but it only addresses, in principle, children age five and younger. At least a quarter of Afghan children ages five to fourteen work.
In a country with no social safety net, putting children to work is one of the few avenues for families to meet basic needs. After decades of war and extreme poverty, as well as having one of the highest number of drug users in the world, the many families in Afghanistan that have lost their breadwinner are left with two choices: Join the millions of Afghans who have been forcibly displaced, or send a child off to work.
A group of Afghan high school and university students, the Afghan Peace Volunteers, is taking a step to increase families’ financial security with a program that teaches Afghan teenagers a trade. Instead of calling for a blanket ban on child labor, the group believes that youth who are taught a trade to earn money for food and other necessities are more likely to stay in school.
Having studied at the Afghan Peace Volunteers’ Street Kids School for almost two years, Saabir recently joined a course to learn how to repair cell phones. In past years, students at the Street Kids School would receive a monthly food ration of rice, lentils, oil, and other basic food items if they regularly attended the school’s nonviolence and literacy classes, but the APV youth coordinators have decided to shift from running the food distribution program to offering training in livelihood skills.
Twenty-one self-selected students from the Street Kids School, ages thirteen and older, and three family members of younger students, are taking the repair course at the private Gharjistan University in Kabul.
During a recent class, some students brought their own cell phones to class, and as in the United States, could not resist checking messages as the instructor talked about “factory reset” and “safe mode.”
Sixteen-year-old Mohammad Haidary sat in the front of the classroom, listening attentively and asking questions. During the first two weeks, Mohammad has learned the parts of a cell phone, the problems that arise when a SIM card is faulty, and how improper language settings can turn recognizable speech in SMS messages to a series of squares and question marks.
If children like himself had a choice, Gul Mohammad thinks it better that they be able to study instead of having to work, better if the government would ensure that the needs of children were met.
Like Saabir, Mohammad started working young, at about age nine or ten, joining family members of the Hazara ethnic group in weaving carpets at home. He is taking the cell phone repair course because he wants to be able to repair his own phone if something goes wrong, or the phones of his friends. The repair shops charge high prices for a simple problem, he says. He also believes he’ll be able to find a better job and be able to keep attending school.
“It takes me a month, together with my family members, to weave a carpet,” Mohammad says, often working all day and therefore unable to attend school. “But with the repair of mobile phones, I don’t have to use the whole day, and the income is higher.”
Mohammad values having his own phone to review school lessons shared digitally by his teachers and to listen to downloaded English audio lessons. He agrees with the transition from providing food gifts to teaching a trade: “I may be able to find a job in the future, and that will, in fact, enable me to have an income. . . . With that income, I can also, then, meet my food needs.”
Among the youngest students in the repair course is fourteen-year-old Gul Mohammad Jamshadi, from the Uzbek ethnic group. He just makes the cutoff age, in part because Afghans would be unlikely to trust in him for a repair if he were much younger.
Gul Mohammad started selling bread in a bakery when he was eight. Now he works in a provisions shop, earning 200 Afghanis per week, about $2.50 U.S. This weekly pay is about twice what a Kabul repair shop charges to replace a phone charger.
Gul Mohammad works to support his mother, his unmarried sister, and himself. His elder brother was killed, and his father has passed away. He says he doesn’t have the tools or phone parts to practice at home what he learns in class, but he studies his course book.
If children like himself had a choice, Gul Mohammad thinks it better that they be able to study instead of having to work, better if the government would ensure that the needs of children were met. When the course ends, Gul Mohammad plans to work part time repairing phones while continuing in school.
“If I don’t study,” he says, “I could become like some people who stop studying and become addicts and who can’t find any job to support their families.”