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Beckham and Bollywood

Today I am meant to travel to Aqcha in the province of Jawzjan, about two hours away from Mazar to visit more Accelerated Learning Centres and our community based therapeutic care (CTC) projects. Unfortunately, we receive word from the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office that due to security concerns, travel today is not advisable.

Although I am disappointed, it highlights how difficult and frustrating it is for our programme staff in Afghanistan to work under such unpredictable circumstances, not to mention the constant stress about security. I am still able to visit one of our Working and Street Children’s (WSC) Centres within Mazar city. The WSC Centres are incredible places where we offer working children who are excluded from the formal education system flexible school times and much needed recreation facilities for three hours every day.

They are also visited by a doctor every week for a health-check up. Three times a year, Save the Children in collaboration with the World Food Programme provides food supplies to the children’s families, alleviating some pressure on their very stretched finances. The children here are from extremely disadvantaged backgrounds and many are recent returnees to their country after they were forced to flee during the conflict.

Since more than 70% of the population of Afghanistan lives below the poverty line, many children have to work to support their families. In one of the classrooms, I have a long meeting with a group of 14-17 year old young men, many of whom are their family’s sole breadwinners and have never accessed education before enrolling at the WSC Centre. They wash cars, work as mechanics or garbage collectors and sell food on the streets.

They ask me lots about my life in London, why I spent so many years studying (I’ve wondered that myself!). They also ask me pertinent questions about how Save the Children plans to help them and their families. They need more stationery and reading materials and since being at the Centre, they are confidently aware of their educational rights.  Like boys everywhere, they also want to talk about football but soon give up when they realise I’m woefully ignorant on the subject and that I’ve never seen David Beckham in London.

The group of girls I meet next also work every day in a range of occupations including carpet weaving, wrapping chocolates and tailoring. Some of them also shell peas to sell in the local market and I notice that the hands of three of the girls have turned a permanent shade of orange from doing so. For seven kilograms of peas peeled over two days they receive 50 Afghanis, less than 1 US dollar.  When the girls find out I’m Indian they eagerly want to talk about Bollywood movies which by now I’ve realised is a source of all-night entertainment in Afghanistan with cable TV being one of the key benefits of the post-Taliban era.

It is evident that these working children have strong educational aspirations, although many of them have passed school attendance age. Save the Children is working with teachers in the formal schools to bring about flexibility in admission and attendance timings to suit working children and also advocating the Ministry of Education in Afghanistan to incorporate these provisions formally in their National Plan of Action for Children.

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