Poverty, a war-shattered infrastructure and poor security are preventing millions of young Afghans from having an education or paid work, officials and aid groups have said.
Poverty recently forced Mohammed Sayed, 16, to quit his studies in the seventh grade of Mahmood Hotaki high school, in Kabul city; he now works repairing tyres in a tiny workshop.
“I abandoned my education because there is no one in my house to work and support my family after the death of my father,” said Sayed, shivering from the cold. “I have to work hard, otherwise I will be forced to beg on the streets as there is no one else to help us,” added Sayed, pumping up a tyre.
Sayed earns roughly US $2 a day, but says that is not enough to keep his family of ten.
Sayed is just one of millions of poverty-stricken children and youth, missing out on an education in the central Asian state where nearly half of the 25 million population lives below the poverty line; the official unemployment rate is 35 percent.
The UK-based NGO, Oxfam, in a report released in November warned that some seven million children – roughly half of all Afghan children - were not able to go to school due to poverty, high school fees and insecurity.
“Those children who are lucky enough to be in school have to put up with untrained teachers, inadequate school buildings and poor textbooks,” said Grace Ommer, head of Oxfam GB in Afghanistan.
The Oxfam report found that girls were worst-affected, with just one in five girls in primary education, and one in 20 attending secondary school.
The NGO has called for more money to be invested in the Afghan education system; two million children are studying in tents, and more than half the country’s schools are in disrepair.
“If Afghanistan is to meet its ambitious aims for primary and secondary education there must be a dramatic increase in aid to the government from rich countries," Ommer asserted.
Following the demise of the Taliban in Afghanistan, there was a five-fold increase in school enrolments, partly due to the fact that previously girls had not been allowed to attend school. Now there are currently some five million children - including 1.5 million girls - attending schools in Afghanistan, officials say.
Effects of the ongoing violence
Violence continues in Afghanistan with the Taliban waging a deadly insurgency against the government. As a result, ten of thousands of boys and girls have had to leave school, in particular in the south of the country, where the militant group is most active.
Local officials at the Ministry of Education (MoE) said in September that more than 300 mixed schools had been closed in the southern provinces of Kandahar, Helmand, Zabul, and Urozgan due to the growing threats from insurgents. Attacks on schools have claimed the lives of dozens of teachers and students, while more than 150 schools have been burned down in insurgencies.
“I quit my studies in eighth grade because my father was afraid that one day the school will be targeted by insurgents or a suicide bomber,” 16-year-old Rokhshana, who was studying in Lashkar Gah [provincial capital of Helmand province] girls’ high school, told IRIN.
“I don’t know what I can do now at home as I didn’t learn any skills such as tailoring,” she added.
Young people have traditionally been recruited by various militia groups and terrorist organisations in Afghanistan during the nearly three decades of civil war. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), of the demobilised soldiers in the Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) programme for ex-combatants, which ended in 2005, 70 percent were under the age of 26, with 7,500 of them aged under 18.
“A few days ago, while I was going to school, the Taliban stopped me and asked me to quit school and learn religious education in a Madrassa instead, or else I should join their armed ranks,” 17-year-old Kandahar student Habibulhaq told IRIN.
“They also told me that I would be paid, but that first I need to get military training before taking part in the fighting against the government,” the teenager revealed.
“Now I am afraid that they might kill me one day because I continued studying at school and didn’t give in to their demand,” he said.
Analysts believe that many unemployed young boys, who are being recruited by the Taliban insurgents, have been increasingly used in suicide bombings which have killed hundreds of people in the last year in Afghanistan. The estimated average age of all of the suicide bombers in Afghanistan was 23-years, according to officials.
“Currently, nearly 80 percent of those involved in terrorist and criminal activities in our country are unemployed and unskilled young people,” Dad Mohammed Rasa, press officer at the Ministry of Interior (MoI), told IRIN.
Lack of opportunities
Despite billions of dollars being donated from the international community during the last five years, tackling youth unemployment still remains one of the most significant challenges for Afghanistan, where decades of conflict have severely damaged all infrastructures, say analysts.
Mohammed Ali, 21, from central Daikundi province was among hundreds of other unemployed people standing in line outside the Iranian Embassy in Kabul. Poverty and poor employment opportunities have forced many people to get visas to find work in neighboring Iran. Mohammed has to support his 11-member family.
“I would not have left my family alone in this harsh winter but I am obliged to do so, because there are no factories or other ways I could work and allow my family to survive,” Ali said, shivering from the winter cold.
While commenting on the issue of youth unemployment, Ghaous Bashiri, deputy minister at the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs (MLSA), said that young people accounted for 60 to 70 percent of the nearly 3 million unemployed people in Afghanistan.
“To tackle youth unemployment, the first most important step is to provide them with vocational training so they can join the labour market, because many of the unemployed young people in our country are illiterate and lacking proper skills,” Bashiri told IRIN.
To address youth unemployment, MLSA has established some 16 Vocational Training Centres (VTC) in the different provinces of Afghanistan, where around 12,000 boys and girls are currently learning various skills such as carpentry, tailoring, carpet weaving, English, computer programming, etc. The VTC programmes usually last between six and 12 months.
MLSA officials say they hope to enrol 150,000 unemployed youth in the VTC programmes by 2010.
The Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief (ACBAR), an umbrella group comprising 97 NGOs working in Afghanistan, is the main source for providing information on various vacancies for many job seekers. Nearly all of the vacancies for NGOs, the UN, and other aid organisations in the country, are advertised through its central office in Kabul.
Mohammed Hashim Mayar, the deputy head of ACBAR, said that youth unemployment was a growing problem in Afghanistan.
“In 2006, some 35,000 job seekers - many of them youth - have contacted our office to see and apply for various vacancies, and their number is increasing every day,” said Mayar.
Mayar said that thousands of high school graduates who had not made it to university had joined the ranks of the unemployed in Afghanistan due to lack of opportunities.
“One of the most significant issues is providing jobs for thousands of students who didn’t find their way to university and other vocational institutions, and thousands of others who could not find jobs after their graduation from universities,” Mayar continued.
According to the Ministry of Higher Education (MoHE), only 23,000 high-school graduates - out of 60,000 students - will go on to universities and other institutions. In 2005, only 12,000 high-school graduates, out of 42,000 boys and girls, were enrolled in higher education across the country.
“I was hoping to be a journalist in the future, but it will never happen as I failed the examination last year. Now I don’t know how to spend my time and what should I do? Should I rob or kill people or should I serve my society?” asked 19-year-old Omaid Stanikzai, a high-school graduate from central Logar province.
Meanwhile, in a joint effort undertaken by the Afghan government and the United Nations, a two-year National Youth Programme (NYP) will be implemented. The purpose of the programme is to increase the participation of youth in governance, recovery, development and the peace-building of Afghanistan, while providing young women and men with better prospects for the future.
[This article is part of a special IRIN series that looks at how conflict, poverty and social alienation are affecting the lives of children and teenagers. Read more: Youth in crisis: coming of age in the 21st century]