By Iftikhor Mirshakar
Samad’s father left home to go and work in Russia when the boy was an infant. Now aged ten, Samad has not seen his father since.
“Dad used to send us some money, but this year we haven’t received anything from him,” said Samad.
The boy lives with his mother and grandfather in Barvoz, an area close to Khorog, the main town in Tajikistan’s southeastern province of Badakhshan.
With the main breadwinner long gone, Samad has to work hard.
“I help to plant wheat and potato, graze the animals, bring water from the river, and cut firewood in the forest,” he said. “Besides, I always try to do the homework I get at school.”
He finds it tiring, but adds, “I have to help my mum as she’s often ill. My granddad is very old and he can’t work too much.”
Twelve-year-old Farid spends his time in much the same way. If he is not out tending the animals, he is working on the family plot or cutting firewood, while trying not to miss classes at school.
Farid lives with his grandparents, as both his mother and father have been working in Russia for the past few years.
Gulos Rahmatshoev, who coordinates a programme called Protecting Working Children of Labour Migrants in Badakhshan, told IWPR that there are thousands of children in the same position as Farid and Samad.
According to the United Nations children’s agency UNICEF, 28 per cent of children aged between five and 14 in Badakhshan are engaged in heavy labour – a higher figure than anywhere else in Tajikistan.
Tajikistan ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1993, soon after it gained independence, and thereby committed itself to protect the rights and interests of children.
The government of Tajikistan has had a National Plan for Child Rights Protection in place since 2003. The strategy seeks to raise children’s living standards, make the state and society more aware of their obligations to protect child rights, with particular emphasis on those from vulnerable groups.
The strategy runs out in 2010, but few people in Badakhshan are aware of what it means for them, according to Jamol Khudododov, head of the Vozrozhdenie (Revival) Children’s Foundation.
DOMESTIC CHORES OR HARD LABOUR?
The standards employed by the International Labour Organisation discriminate between various kinds of work performed by children, saying light work should be allowed only after the age of 12 or 13, heavier tasks from the 14-16 age range, while work described as “hazardous” should be outlawed for anyone under 18.
National labour legislation in Tajikistan, meanwhile, allows children to work full time only when they reach 16. From 14 to 16, they are allowed to work a maximum of two-and-a-half hours a day.
Tajik law also makes it a criminal offence to hire children and profit from their labour.
This latter provision may be more enforceable in other parts of Tajikistan, where children may be employed by strangers. In Badakhshan, however, it is mainly a question of children helping adult relatives to keep households afloat, according to Manuchehr Kholiknazarov, who heads the regional branch of the Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law.
The ILO conventions exclude work done around the home or in the family business. But this cannot be so taxing that it affects their wellbeing or interferes with their schooling.
In Badakhshan, many working children in rural areas appear to fit this category. Others who do jobs at markets in urban centres like Khorog seem to more precisely fit the category of those in paid employment.
In Badakhshan, a vast but sparsely populated area in the high Pamir mountains, life has always been tough. The economy is almost entirely rural, and although people grow potatos, cereals and tobacco, the sheer lack of farmland and the harsh climate mean they rely mainly on livestock
In this environment, families see it as normal and necessary to ask the children to help out.
In recent years, though, the need for labour has become more acute because of the mass exodus of working-age adults, particularly male, going off to Russia and Kazakstan to find seasonal jobs. Some, like the parents of Samad and Farid, end up staying abroad more or less permanently.
According to Kamchibek Nasillobekov, head of the Badakhshonkhorijakor agency, which provides job placement services for migrants, 24,000 people or 12 per cent of Badakhshan’s population are working abroad.
The head of the regional department of the government agency for employment and migration, Mamadkarim Nazirov says that depending on how the calculations are done, up to 25 per cent of Badakhshan’s economically active population may be out of the country.
This has placed a much greater burden on the shoulders of children who stay behind.
In the village of Shohirizm in the Roshtkalinskiy district, for example, 150 of the 400 residents, typically young men, have gone off to Russia in the last two years. Local headmaster Sarvar Mansurov says the situation is the same in the neighbouring villages of Sindev and Sejd, where 140 out of 370 and 300 of 1,000 residents, respectively, have gone.
Zarchabek Zarchabekov, who runs a farm in Shohirizm, says it is left to children to fill the gap.
“There’s no one else to do it,” he said. “Children have to work, and no one knows how to resolve this problem.”
CHILDREN SUFFER INCREASED HEALTH, SOCIAL PROBLEMS
Some doctors say children’s health is being harmed by having to work so hard. This may place them within the ILO’s definition of “hazardous work”.
Nargis Bulbulsaidova, a paediatrician of at the Khorog Health Centre, says many children in Badakhshan suffer from skeletal deformation, diseases of the internal organs, hernias, and other problems. In general, she says, those from rural areas are behind their urban peers in terms of physical development.
In addition, “Many of them are depressed and suffer from chronic fatigue”, she said.
Psychiatrist Muso Mardonov says the absence of parents is bad for children’s psychological wellbeing.
“Grandmothers and grandfathers are no substitutes for parents,“ says Mardonov. “The children of labour migrants live without parents for several years. Many of them become drug addicts as they want to attract people’s attention”.
Bordering on Afghanistan, Badakhshan is located on a prime route used to traffic heroin out of the country. A side-effect of trafficking is that at this stage in their journey, narcotics are cheap and local consumption has soared.
Mardonov says these children also account for a large proportion of delinquent behaviour, again because they are vulnerable and needy.
“Hard physical labour coupled with the absence of parents leads to constant stress and depression among such children,” said Mardonov. “There are no official statistics on this, but there have been recorded cases of suicide attempts by the children of labour migrants.”
PENALTIES AND REFORMS
Khushomad Alidodov, deputy head of the provincial branch of the opposition Social Democratic Party, has seen children from the age of six out working in the fields.
“None of those who use children as hard labour has ever been penalised,” said Alidodov. “The authorities should bring people who use child labour to justice, while local government should provide support to the children of migrants.”
Alidodov said these children do not receive humanitarian aid, because it is commonly believed that their parents send a lot of money home. “But no one knows how much of the money gets spent on the children’s needs,” he added.
Until recently, remittances sent by labour migrants was the major source of income for most families in Tajikistan, but the downturn in the availability of work in Russia and Kazakstan in recent months has made a severe dent in the flow of money. In the first quarter of this year, remittances transferred to Badakhshan came to just over 4.8 million US dollars –down by one-third on the 6.5 million dollars sent over the same period of 2008.
Anjirbegim Maqbulshoeva of the Badakhshan education department’s juvenile affairs committee says parents should take prime responsibility for caring for their children.
“If you work hard, you can earn enough even if you [stay and] work in the Pamirs,” she said. “If the parents want to go and work in Russia, they should take their children with them.”
Atokhuja Shaftoliev, who lives in the village of Sejd, disagrees with this view. He argues that the main reason why migrants do not take their children to Russia or other countries is that it is very difficult to place them in schools and kindergartens there.
“Only if they return can the problem of child labour be solved,” he said. “But there isn’t enough land or livestock in Tajik villages, and that makes it almost impossible to resolve this.”
There are a number of government agencies and NGOs working on child rights in Badakhshan. Maqbulshoeva says the state authorities are ready to cooperate with the NGO sector, and Khudododov of the Vozrozhdenie Foundation agrees this is essential.
“All segments of society should act together,” he said.
At the moment much of the work is being funded by international donors like the ILO, which is funding the Protecting Working Children of Labour Migrants programme, which will initially focus on 500 children in Khorog and in the Shugnan and Roshtkala district, with plans to expand to help 3,000 children in future.
According to programme coordinator Rahmatshoev, the work also encompasses raising awareness among officials, members of the public and the children themselves.
“If it proves effective, we will put in another proposal to donors to create a children’s centre in Badakhshan, where children will be taught foreign languages, IT, business and legal issues,” said Rahmatshoev.
(All the names of children have been changed out of respect for privacy.)
Iftikhor Mirshakar is a freelance journalist in Khorog.
This article was produced under IWPR’s Building Central Asian Human Rights Protection & Education Through the Media programme, funded by the European Commission. The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of IWPR and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the European Union.