Changing the Face of Child Labor in Afghanistan

In a new series of policy briefs, our YLFees discuss current political challenges and recommendations

Child labor is widespread all over the world, specifically in developing countries. Afghanistan, as a war-torn and under-developed country, is suffering from this problem as well. Global and country-level efforts have implemented policies to combat this heterogeneous phenomenon.

In Afghanistan, as in other developing countries, children are among the most exploited groups of society. A large number of child workers are living here. Most of these children are the primary sources of income for their families. Forty years of civil war, poverty, low incomes, illiteracy, and insecurity are all the root causes of this phenomenon.

The percentage of the total child population working in developing countries is higher than in developed ones. Afghan children encounter this issue on a large scale. This research is based on international organizations' reports regarding child labor and Afghanistan's internal actions to combat it. It's scope mainly focuses on child laborers in Kabul city, the capital.

Almost half of the country's population of 30 million is under age 18;  the number of child laborers in proportion is high. The 2016 report by Human Rights Watch reported that more than a third of boys and a quarter of girls between the ages of 5 and 17 are engaged in hazardous child labor.

Historically, in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, industrial machinery gradually replaced manual labor. In the industrialization process, factory owners discovered a new labor force to move the industry wheel: children.

Children as human beings are entitled to fundamental human rights. Therefore, child labor and exploitation are a breach of human rights and deprives them of the right to education, healthcare, leisure, and other fundamental rights. However, all internationally accepted instruments acknowledge children's mentioned rights, yet child labor and exploitation persists.

There are two general definitions for the term "child labor." It is often defined as work that deprives children of their childhood, potential, and dignity, which is harmful to their physical and mental development. It refers to work that: 1) is mentally, physically, socially or morally dangerous and harmful to children; and 2) interferes with their schooling by depriving them of attending school, by obliging them to leave school prematurely, or by requiring them to attempt to combine school attendance with excessively long and heavy work.

Furthermore, another definition of child labor from the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, article 32, defines child labor through the Convention's protections: 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." Both definitions are in line with the rights of children, which are recognized internationally.

In traditional societies like Afghanistan, the number of children forced into labor increased due to high poverty. According to the National Risk and Vulnerability Assessment (8/2007), about 1.9 million children aged 6-17 (21%) are child workers. Moreover, an estimate in 2009 found that one in four Afghan children aged 7 to 14 is engaged in some form of work. In 2018, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission reported that out of 5,700 children interviewed, 51 percent were involved in labor and worked between two and seven hours per week while 1 percent worked for two to twelve hours in addition to one to two hours during nighttime.

Child labor is relatively common in Afghanistan for various reasons such as poverty, illiteracy, and traditional and customary lifestyle. A 2016 Humans Rights Watch report specifies forms of children's labor in the country: The majority of Afghan children are busy in the home-based carpet industry, brick kilns, as tinsmiths and welders in the metal industry, in mines, in agriculture, and on the streets as vendors, shoe shiners or beggars. Poverty and reduced income from family breadwinners lead to even more children on the streets.

Additionally, there are no work opportunities for their parents to sustain their families. Therefore, they push the children to work in the streets. 3.7 million (44%) of all school-age children are out of school. They are the breadwinners of their families; most of their parents have died due to disabilities. Also, street working children are threatened by physical, psychological, and moral risks. A UNICEF evaluation report estimates the number of street children as at least 60,000 within Kabul city— the majority (between around eight or nine out of every ten children) of the boys.

The legal framework recognized by the government of Afghanistan addresses child labor. The Afghan constitution explicitly prohibits the forced labor of children. Furthermore, Afghanistan is a signatory to the ILO Conventions on Child labor, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) since 1994, the Optional Protocols on Children, and the Palermo Protocol on Trafficking in Persons. Previously, the Afghan government adopted the National Strategy for Children at Risk, which UNICEF also supports. It aims to help the most vulnerable families and protect and care for their children. Recently, it adopted the Afghanistan National Child labor strategy and action plan as well.

To conclude, despite the broad legal framework and actions of Afghanistan's government to decrease and mitigate child labor, the number of child laborers is increasing daily. Rampant poverty, insecurity, shortage of school facilities, and unemployment of children's parents lead to child labor. Recognizing that child labor is an issue of the most significant concern and the result of multiple causes with multiple dimensions, this policy brief aims to find a way to confront it and change Afghanistan's current situation.


  • Poverty is the main reason for the rise of children labor numbers;
  • Lower-income and unemployment of the children's parents resulted in forced labor imposed on children by their parents;
  • Child labor deprives them of their fundamental human rights such as the right to education;
  • Afghanistan's broad legal framework and actions to decrease child labor are not sufficient; tangible actions are required.


  • Afghanistan should strengthen its commitments to decrease child laborers' number and eliminate hazardous labor to mitigate possible harms. Additionally, it should reinforce existing rules.
  • Every street working child is the primary source of income for their families. Accordingly, a broad survey of their families must be done to detect other work-eligible people in families and provide work opportunities for them, so that children can attend school. Schooling and the education of children is the priority of every government. However, a strong focus has already been put on the education of children in Afghanistan through the constitution, which provides free education for citizens up to the bachelor's degree level.
  • Child labor must be prevented. Awareness among children and parents regarding the current and future harms of work at an early age must be raised.

Masiha Sherzad is a member of the 2020/21 Young Leaders Forum.

This article has also been published in Dari by Afghanistan Today. The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and not necessarily those of Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.



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