Students play truant to work in Helmand’s poppy fields

Esmatullah, aged 14, had pains in his back and legs from working in a poppy field in Helmand Province, southern Afghanistan, on 5 March. He has been absent from school since that date.

Esmatullah hails from the province’s Marja District where he attended school, but due to insecurity and repeated attacks on schools, Esmatullah’s family sent him to Lashkargah, the provincial capital, to continue his education.

When he returned to his home village for a weekend to visit his family, his uncle told him to help him clear their vast poppy fields of weeds.

In the run-up to the poppy harvest in May and June farmers in Helmand Province weed the poppy fields – enabling poppy flowers to grow faster and stronger and produce more opium.

Helmand Province alone produced about 40 percent of Afghanistan’s 8,200 metric tonnes of opium in 2007, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported.

“I have to work and make money to pay for a rented room in Lashkargah and pay for other expenses while I am attending school there,” Esmatullah told IRIN.

Another 12-year-old student from Helmand’s Nad Ali District said he, his father and brothers worked as labourers in poppy fields to feed their extended family and pay for his education in Lashkargah.

“We do not have our own land, but we earn 200-250 Afghanis [US$4-5] per person for a day’s work on others’ fields,” Gul said.

Afghan mothers give children opium

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Hundreds absent from school

Helmand Province is widely affected by insurgency-related violence and dozens of schools have remained closed, particularly in rural areas, due to frequent attacks on educational facilities, teachers and schoolchildren.

As a result, hundreds of students from rural areas have flocked to schools in Lashkargah where schools have remained open despite widespread security threats. Many of these students live in rented rooms in Lashkargah, and cannot regularly travel to their homes for both security and financial reasons.

“I pay 4,000 Afghanis [$80] per month for a shared room in Lashkargah,” said Abdul Hadi, a student from Marja District, adding that he had to work in poppy fields to pay for his education expenses because his parents could not help.

Most students had reportedly been absent from schools in Lashkargah in March 2008, the provincial Department of Education (DoE) confirmed.

“This is very unfortunate… hundreds of students have gone to the poppy fields to earn money,” said Rahimullah, the director of DoE in Helmand Province.

Underreported, vulnerable

Humanitarian reporting on the plight of children in insurgency-affected provinces in southern Afghanistan, particularly Helmand Province, is limited owing to the lack of reliable facts, figures and information, aid workers and media reports say.

Due to security restrictions no non-governmental organisations (NGOs) dealing with children’s rights and protection, including the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), operate in Helmand Province.

UN agencies and other aid organisations rely on the limited capacity of provincial government bodies to conduct assessments, deliver aid and implement development projects.

Photo: Minapal/IRIN
Helmand Province alone produced about 40 percent of Afghanistan’s 8,200 metric tonnes of opium in 2007

“Lack of access is our major problem,” conceded Shamsullah Tanwer, a researcher on the rights of children in Helmand and Kandahar provinces with Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC).

“The issue of children working in poppy fields is a serious problem,” Tanwer told IRIN on the phone from his office in Kandahar. “It’s the right of every child to go to school… and child labour is illegal, particularly on illicit poppy fields,” he said.

Children working in poppy fields not only miss out on their education and do an onerous job over long hours, but are also vulnerable to drug addiction, particularly during harvest season, experts say.

“The challenge is how we can reach, help and support these children,” said Tanwer of the AIHRC.

According to the UNODC, Afghanistan supplies an estimated 93 per cent of the global illicit market for opiates.