The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For many Afghan kids, school isn’t an option. They’re needed at work.

Kids as young as 4 work long hours at factories to help their families survive.

Afghan children work in a brick factory on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan, on August 17. Aid agencies say the number of children working in Afghanistan is growing since the economy collapsed after the Taliban takeover more than a year ago. (Ebrahim Noroozi/AP)

Nabila works 10 hours or more a day, doing the heavy, dirty labor of packing mud into molds and hauling wheelbarrows full of bricks. At 12 years old, she’s been working in brick factories half her life, and she’s probably the oldest of her co-workers.

The number of children put to work in Afghanistan is growing, fueled by the collapse of the economy after the Taliban took over the country and the world cut off financial aid just over a year ago.

A recent survey by Save the Children estimated that half of Afghanistan’s families have put children to work to keep food on the table after parents lost their jobs.

Nowhere is it clearer than in the many brick factories on the highway north of the capital, Kabul. Conditions in the furnaces are tough even for adults. But in almost all of them, children as young as 4 or 5 labor alongside their families from early in the morning until dark, even in the heat of summer.

Children do every step of the brickmaking process. They haul canisters of water, carry wooden brick molds full of mud to put in the sun to dry. They load and push wheelbarrows full of dried bricks to the kiln for firing, then push back wheelbarrows full of fired bricks. They pick through the smoldering charcoal in the kiln for pieces that can still be used, inhaling the soot and burning their fingers.

The kids work with determination and a sense of responsibility. When asked about toys or play, they smile and shrug. Only a few have been to school.

Nabila, the 12-year-old, has been working in brick factories since she was 5 or 6. Her family works part of the year at a kiln near Kabul, the other part at one outside Jalalabad, near the Pakistani border.

A few years ago, she got the opportunity to go to school a little in Jalalabad. She’d like 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 else but work,” she said.

The landscape around the factories is bleak. Families live in run-down mud houses next to furnaces. For most, a day’s meal is bread soaked in tea.

Workers get the equivalent of $4 for every 1,000 bricks they make. One adult working alone can’t do that amount in a day, but if the children help, they can make 1,500 bricks a day, workers said.

According to surveys by Save the Children, the percentage of families saying they had a child working outside the home grew from 18 percent to 22 percent from December to June. That would suggest more than 1 million children nationwide were working.

On a recent day at one of the kilns, a light rain started. At first the kids were cheerful, thinking it would be a refreshing drizzle in the heat. Then the wind kicked up. A blast of dust hit them, coating their faces. Some of the children couldn’t open their eyes, but they kept working. The rain turned into a downpour.

The kids were soaked. One boy had water and mud pouring off him but said he couldn’t take shelter without finishing his work.

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

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