March 30, 2023

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Nabila works 10 hours a day or more, doing the heavy, dirty labor of packing mud into molds and carrying wheelbarrows full of bricks. At 12 years old, he has now spent half his life working in a brick factory, and he is probably the oldest of all his colleagues.

Already high, the number of working children in Afghanistan is on the rise, with the economy collapsing after the Taliban took over the country and the world cut off financial aid just a year ago.

A recent survey by Save the Children estimated that half of the country’s households employ children to put food on the table as livelihoods are disrupted.

Nowhere is this clearer than the many brick factories on the highway north of the capital, Kabul. Furnace conditions are difficult even for adults. But almost all of them, children under the age of four or five, are seen toiling with their families from dawn to dusk in the summer heat.

Every step of brick making is done by children. They carry water canisters, leave wooden brick molds filled with mud to dry in the sun. They load and push wheelbarrows full of dry bricks for firing, then push back the wheelbarrows full of fired bricks. They pick from the coal burned in the furnace that can still be used, inhale the soot and singe their fingers.

Children act with determination born of knowing something other than their family’s needs. When asked about toys or games, they smile and shrug. Only a few went to school.

12-year-old Nabila has been working in a brick factory since she was five-six years old. Like many other brick workers, his family works part of the year in a kiln near Kabul, the other part in a kiln outside Jalalabad, near the Pakistan border.

A few years ago, he had to go to a little school in Jalalabad. She wants to go back to school but can’t — her family needs her work to survive, she said with a soft smile.

“We can’t think about anything but work,” he said.

Mohabbat, a 9-year-old boy, stopped for a moment with a pained expression while carrying a load of charcoal. “My back hurts,” he said.

When asked what he wants, he first asks, “What is the wish?” Then once explained, he thought silently for a while. “I want to go to school and eat good food,” he said, then added: “I want to work well so we can have a house.”

The landscape around the factory is bleak and barren, the smokestacks of the kilns belching out black, sooty smoke. Families live in dilapidated mud houses next to the furnaces, each in a corner where they make their bricks. For most, the meal of the day is bread soaked in tea.

Rahim has three children, aged 5 to 12, working with him in a brick kiln. The children were in school, and Rahim, who goes by the name Ek, said he resisted using them for a long time. But before the Taliban came to power, as the war continued and the economy deteriorated, he said he had no choice.

“There is no other way,” he said. “How can they study when we have no bread to eat? Survival is more important.”

Workers receive the equivalent of $4 per 1,000 bricks. An adult working alone cannot do this amount in a day, but with the help of children they can make 1,500 bricks a day, the workers said.

According to a survey by Save the Children, the percentage of children in households working outside the home rose from 18% to 22% from December to June. This would suggest that more than 1 million children are working nationwide. The surveys covered more than 1,400 children and more than 1,400 caregivers in seven provinces. Another 22% of children said they were asked to work in the family business or farm.

The survey also points to the decline in livelihoods that Afghans have endured over the past year. In June, 77% of households surveyed reported losing half or more of their income, compared to 61% in December a year earlier.

On a recent day, a light rain started in a kiln, and at first the children were cheerful, thinking it would be a refreshing drizzle in the heat. Then the wind picked up. A blast of dust hit them in the face. The air turned yellow with dust. Some children could not open their eyes, but they continued to work. The rain opened in torrents.

The kids got wet. One boy was pouring water and mud, but like the others he said he could not take shelter until he had finished his work. Streams from the driving rain carved trenches in the dirt around them.

“We’re used to it,” he said. Then he said to the other boy, “Hurry up, let’s finish.”

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