Afghanistan is one of the world’s most dangerous places to be a child. One in four children die before they turn five.
They are alive, and I’m happy.
A father of newborn twins. The last time his wife gave birth, also to twins, the babies died because there was no clinic.
The looks of intense concentration, the colourful drawings of flowers and homes, the whispered discussions — the scene in the classroom says it all. Afghanistan’s children want to learn.
The teacher at our centre for working children says that her students knock on her door at 7am, wanting to start school.
“These are children who knew nothing — not even how to draw a line,” she says. “Now they write words.”
This is the promise of our programme in Afghanistan — a country with among the worst indicators for children in the world.
Despite the war and immense poverty, we can see change.
- More women die in childbirth in Afghanistan than almost anywhere else in the world.
- Despite the risks to our staff and increasing insecurity, we continue to expand our programme, working with communities so that what we do lasts. Our priorities are saving children’s lives and education.
- In 2010 we helped 80,000 children in Afghanistan.
For 30 years Afghanistan’s children have lived in the midst of adults’ wars. They have been left with a country which serves them poorly.
Here, mothers bleed to death after childbirth because of lack of healthcare.
Life is so precarious that sudden disaster — droughts or floods, for instance — can force a family to off marry a daughter as young as 15 in return for a dowry to help pay for meals.
Malnutrition permanently damages the majority of children.
Extreme poverty means children as young as five years old have to work.
War compounds the challenge to children. More than a thousand were civilian casualties in 2009.
They’re often affected by beatings at school, and a climate of violence at home.
They can be attacked walking to school or witness their teachers being killed.
Afghan children have to fight harder to survive than almost anywhere else in the world.
What have we achieved?
As an aid agency under threat, in what is a complex and rapidly changing security situation, we constantly assess the risks to our 700 staff and our work. In 2009 we curtailed work in some provinces.
But what gives us hope, in the context of war and poverty, is what we have achieved.
Our child survival programmes are saving thousands of lives — 5,000 in 2009.
In places where there have been no medically trained personnel for decades, our trained midwives, community health workers, clinics and doctors are making big inroads into child and maternal mortality.
In just six months in 2010, a district hospital we support helped 600 malnourished children.
We’ve surpassed our targets for education — 27,000 more children now go to school because of us.
We build new schools, working with communities. We support government schools with supplies, teachers and salaries.
For children who have never set foot in a classroom, or who need extra help to catch up, especially girls, we provide alternative learning centres.
Our violence-free schools project is beginning to shift attitudes so that children who expected beatings and abuse as part of their education can learn without fear.
How do we manage in such a dangerous environment?
“We can carry on because of our approach,” says our senior communications manager in Afghanistan, who cannot be named for security reasons.
“We have no foreign policy agenda. We’re not here with the troops. The people we are responsible to are Afghan children.”
“The dialogue with communities is crucial. If you go out to see our programmes, you’ll see an Afghan talking to other Afghans, about children. No matter who they are, they can still support a health clinic.”
“We work with the communities, and make sure they want a school or clinic. They donate the land and labour. That way, we build things that last.”
Our top priority is saving children’s lives. We know how to stop maternal and infant mortality, and we know that our programmes work.
We’re teaching community health workers, often an illiterate man and wife from a village, to assess and treat sick children, using pictorial booklets as a guide.
We aim to expand our teacher training, build new schools, support for a better curriculum, and promote violence-free classrooms.
We’re supporting children’s education in some of Afghanistan’s most remote areas.
We also aim to protect the weakest: children living and working on the streets, and those in institutions.
You can help
“Children are dying now — they cannot wait,” says one of our staff.
Find out more
- Watch this video to see our work in Afghanistan.
- Newborn hope — the moving story of one baby's struggle for survival.
- Watch this video we produced for the Guardian about Zarghoona — one of thousands of children who work to support their families.
- If I were president — young people in Afghanistan tell us how they would change their country if they were president.
- Read our staff blogs from Afghanistan.