Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
Born in Afghanistan: the worst possible start in life
The United Nations said last week that Afghanistan is “without doubt” the worst place in the world for a child, especially a girl, to be born.
It has the highest infant mortality rate in the world, 70 percent of Afghans have no access to clean water and hundreds of schools, mostly girls’ schools, have been attacked by Taliban or other insurgents.
Unfortunately the finding in UNICEF’s annual report on children comes as no surprise to people who live in the impoverished, war-torn country.
For many Afghans and foreigners in Afghanistan who are not living on the breadline, the little boys and girls in grubby clothes and dirty faces, who tap on their car windows, begging them for money or desperately trying to sell tattered maps and chewing gum, are such a familiar part of Afghanistan’s crumbling urban landscape that they go unnoticed or at best are avoided by wealthier passersby.
Throughout Afghanistan, children are very visible and are perhaps the most photographed entity in the country after foreign troops. In rural areas they stand outside doorways in clusters, greet foreign military convoys cheerily, crowd around foreigners and walk around bare footed, with matted hair.
They are part of a generation who have so far grown-up only knowing Washington and NATO’s military involvement in their country. Although they have been spared the experience of Afghanistan’s brutal civil war of the early 1990s and the reign of the Taliban, they are now at risk of being killed in foreign forces air strikes, suicide attacks and insurgent-laid roadside bombs.
Girls, despite being allowed back to school, have it particularly bad, the UNICEF report says. Again, given Afghanistan’s recent history of subjugating women and keeping them economically and socially disenfranchised, this also comes as no shock.
They are married-off young in rural areas, are barely educated outside provincial capitals and those that do go to school are often made to feel miserable for daring to try to improve their lives.
And some girls in the Shia community face the prospect of having a husband who may legally be able to subject them to marital rape.
But there are also powerful and strong examples of young people prospering. The recent election saw thousands of teenagers volunteering to support the process, enthusiastically helping election staff at polling stations. The results of the fraud-ridden poll however probably jilted their optimism and undermined their expectations of change.
Many young Afghans are determined to do well and try to find the bright side in the conflict that has derailed their upbringings, by seeking-out opportunities where they can change Afghanistan for the better. Some of those who have been educated in neighbouring Iran or Pakistan when their families fled fighting and the Taliban before 2001 have returned to their birth country and are now active in human rights and democracy movements and are accomplished advocates for peace and change, hoping they can help improve things so their younger compatriots can have a better life.
[Top: Afghan girls carry water in Kabul (Reuters/Ahmed Masood); middle: displaced Afghan children in Helmand province (Reuters/Omar Sobhani); a mourner touches the body of a boy residents said was killed by U.S.-led troops in Kabul in September 2008 (Reuters/Omar Sobhani)]