Street children provide the main source of income for some Afghan families

Kabul, December, 2004- The voice of seven year-old Sajida echoes around the streets of Kabul, as she calls for people to buy her Bolani (fried bread stuffed with potatoes). The tiny girl balances her basket filled with the sweet meats on her head holding onto the other side with her calloused hands. Clad in a simple Afghan cotton tunic and pants she's barely clothed to face the cold temperatures of the Afghan winter.

Sajida is one the many young children who was forced to work on the streets after she lost her father in the civil war. Instead of going to school like any other ordinary child she has become the main breadwinner for the family; her older sisters are not allowed to work because of traditional Afghan values that consider it immoral for teenage girls to work.

Many young children inhaling the fumes of car exhausts duck and dart in and out of traffic lanes in the busy streets of Kabul where man and machine fight to get into lane, to sell something, anything, an international magazine; the Economist or Time magazine or a phone card.

International humanitarian aid projects committed to street children operate in major cities like the capital Kabul, northern Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat city in the west, with the aim of removing children from the streets.

And according to the ministry of education, there are 36 private and public kindergartens dedicated to educating street children throughout the capital Kabul and the provinces. Nearly 2,000 children attend some sort of educational establishment and out of this number,1,487 of them are from the capital Kabul.

His face caked in grime and dust off the streets, twelve year-old Hamid, arms looped with pink and green plastic bags runs after people shouting: "Madam, want buy plastic bag -- madam, special price for you."

The young boy's voice "buy a bag -- buy a bag" drowns in the hustle and the bustle of the rush hour traffic and the sea of voices clamoring to get their product sold.

Some days the young salesman gets desperate and pushy because he only makes a mere 90 cents a day and this has to feed his family of seven. When Pajhwok Afghan News asked him if he went to school he said he sold plastic bags from sunrise to sunset and he had no time to go to school because he needed to provide food for his family.

Although he said he wished he could study like all the other children of his age. The story of the poor street vendors and their welfare is not just confined to the capital Kabul; it's a nation-wide problem and extends to other bigger provinces like Herat.

Many poor children who do not have a home often sleep rough in the streets. Fourteen year-old, Juma Gul told Pajhwok Afghan News of his tale while living in Iran for four months. "The police in Iran caught me and put me in Safid camp for two months calling me a thief they later expelled me from Iran."

Juma Gul was provided with a place to stay at a shelter for children and enrolled in the kindergarten at Herat but he didn't like it there and he now roams around the park where he sleeps in the night.

There are some children who are orphans living in the streets and Mohammed is one of them: "I don't have any information about my family." The teachers at the kindergarten at Herat say that children do run away but it's mainly due to the lack of places in the school.

One of the school administrators, Dr Zmarai Momandzai of Khwaja Abdullah Ansari kindergarten, which has nearly 240 children on its books said: "We had to turn away nearly 110 boys because there weren't enough spaces and it is very likely that these children will be sleeping rough at nights and often in a park."

According to Dr Momandzai, the kindergarten does not have enough people to monitor security and the walls around the school are not high enough, so the children escape easily and the administrators of the kindergarten can't keep running after them.

There are many children in Afghanistan who do not receive a formal education and are roaming the streets scavenging for food. Muzhgan, a fifth year student of Munucheheri school said: " Instead of studying children are working in the city, selling plastic bags, chewing-gum and bottles of mineral water.

Can the government of Hamid Karzai and other authorities unable to see the plight of these chidren? Can't they see the pain they are going through?"

But twelve year-old Muzhgan wonders why all Afghan children don't get an education: "I haven't been abroad, but I see through TV programs that other countries provide a variety of facilities for their children, and we should also have such facilities provided."

Many International NGOs are trying to address this problem that was mainly created by many years of civil war in Afghanistan, but due to lack of space and funding the problem has become insurmountable.

Most children even resort to illegal acts and commit crimes to get a piece of bread. Mohammad Sherif, the head of children's training and reform unit at the justice ministry in Kabul believes that one of the root cause of problems faced by children could be overcome if their economical situation is improved.

Mohammad Sherif says if Afghan society embraces family values the problem of poor street children could be dealt with. If the families treat their children well and violence is eradicated from the society, this will in itself enhance a better environment for children to grow up in and the children will also cease from committing crimes and running away.

The Director of the Children's support group, Nicholas Hughes says that their NGO runs classes for children who are of school going age. We offer classes for children between the age of 7 and 17 for two and a half hours every day. Young girls learn to sew and boys have classes in metal work, car mechanics and carpentry.

The children who take part in this program are not financially rewarded, so they are also able to work in their spare time or when school is over.

The Head of UNICEF, Reza Hussaini says: "Unicef is happy of its achievements in Afghanistan in the past three years. We have been able to solve many problems during the last three years through educational programs, health care advice and special community projects focused on children."

But there is still a lot more to be done and it is not a problem that will go away. He said: "We are determined to give the rights of each Afghan child with the help of government, donors, NGOs and society." He said the problem will not be solved overnight. However with serious investment and commitment from the financial and social sectors, the problem could be solved.

But many street children like Sajida, Hamid, Juma Gul who sell Kabul maps to foreigners or the latest copy of the Dari-English dictionary by daylight and sleep in the parks at night are doubtful of their future because they say they haven't received aid or help from any international NGO's.