A one-day conference was convened in the framework of the Human Rights Week, in collaboration at the premises of the French Institute Afghanistan (IFA), on 7 December. The conference was entitled “Children of War, Refugees and Returnees,” and consisted of two panels: “Children affected by war” and “Education and culture, have the children gone missing?” War, poverty, international conventions and domestic laws of Afghanistan on children, child smuggling, gender, culture and education were themes that were addressed in the two expert panels. 

Mr.  Rooholamin Amini, deputy director of Armanshahr Foundation/OPEN ASIA opened the conference. Then, Mr.  Franz-Michael Mellbin, EU special representative and head of EU delegation in Afghanistan, spoke. He voiced his support for children of Afghanistan and Armanshahr’s informative programmes, saying that he was pleased that he had witnessed programmes praising children and young people ever since the European Union had established its delegation in Afghanistan. Mr. Mellbin called on all parties to the conflict to pay serious attention to civilians and two children in particular. Subsequently Mr.  Philippe Merlin, charge d’affaires of the French Embassy in Kabul, also expressed his pleasure web the organising of such programmes. Mr. Merlin stated on behalf of the French government: wherever children are in undesirable conditions, the issue is a priority for France.

Next, the documentary film “Water” was screened. The film won the best short feature film prize in the 4th International Women’s Film Festival-Herat (2016) and is directed by Jalal Rohani. The 14-minute Persian-language film produced in Afghanistan addresses the issue of children and the lack of access of Afghanistan’s working children to education. It is the story of a female street child who has a load of beverage cans on her back and is watching through the window of a school class and trying to learn the word “water”. This is her first experience in learning and may be her last. After the film, its director answered a number of questions on the film’s theme.

Moderator of the first panel, “Children affected by war”, was Mr. Ehsan Qaneh. Mr.  Zabih Jawad, representative of the Women and Children Legal Research Foundation (WCLRF), spoke about the last rights of children in conflicts. Dr Sadiq Syed, an adviser to the UN Women, discussed “how does gender determined deprivation of rights?” And Mr. Aziz Royesh, principal of Marefat High School, addressed the theme of “absence of a post-war educational system and the growth of Islamic madrassas.”

Mr.  Zabih Jawad said children were the basic element of the society in Afghanistan and pointed out the international treaties and domestic laws established to protect children. Referring to the UN human rights report, he said that children in Afghanistan have been victims of war and violence and have been deprived of their basic rights. In his opinion, all these problems arise from the failure to implement the laws.

The next speaker, Dr Sadiq Syed recalled that children constitute the majority of the population in Afghanistan and the government of Afghanistan has committed itself to implement the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

He said: The women of Afghanistan are still facing discrimination from cradle to grave. The parties to the conflict destroy schools or use them as trenches. He expressed concern that 40% of women are deprived of education. He also said that 57% of all marriages take place at early ages and this is the reason for the increased mortality of mothers and children. He said, the reason for early marriages is the economic problems of the family. “Our studies and interviews show that loans and economic problems force the concerned families to sell their female children or marry them off.” He emphasised that women and children need psychological counselling and argued that the failure to implement the laws and international treaties is a factor that impacts the conditions of girls and women.

Mr Royesh discussed the reasons and factors that have led to the present condition of children. The fundamental reasons, in his opinion, are the wars and violence of the past four decades. Children of Afghanistan are living in extreme distress and suffering from complexes that originate in deprivation. It is not reasonable to expect families to be kind to their children and meet their requirements. The question is: what resources do families have to meet the basic needs of their children? The government is the only authority that is in possession of abundant resources and international support and can improve the critical conditions of children. The educational standard of the schools is not adequate to encounter the waves of extremism. If we do not pay attention to the educational standard, the present-day deprived and victimised children may grow up to be the Taleban of tomorrow.

During the question and answer session following the speeches, the speakers addressed the issue of the responsibilities of the government concerning the children abandoned by war. Mr. Jawad said: The institutions concerned, such as the ministries of defence and interior and the National Security Directorate, have specific policies for the war victims and soldiers. The government must organise a comprehensive survey to find out how many children count as victims and deprived today and then plan to solve the problem. Organisations such as WCLRF can mainly get involved in advocacy.

Mr Royesh pointed out that the difference between the present and past generations lies in the spirit of resistance and positive thinking of the present generation. “I believe, we have the strongest and the most positive thinking generation in this country, which engages in thinking and consultation instead of taking up guns.” As far as educational standard is concerned, there is no academic coherence in textbooks, which have been stuffed with unrelated data and information. Fortunately, this concerns our official education, i.e. only 10% of the whole. The unofficial education, 90%, comes from the society, cyberspace and Internet. That is positive. As a teacher, I believe we must pay more attention to unofficial education.

On the performance of international institutions in regard to children and women, Dr Sadiq Syed said: we have had the greatest achievement in the field of human rights in Afghanistan and I take pride in it. Women’s participation is visible in all spheres, but that is not enough. We have launched many services to aid women across Afghanistan, we have worked to help women grow economically self-sufficient.

The first panel concluded by summing up that Afghanistan is still an insecure land for women and children, who are victims of war and violence.

Afterwards, the choir of Marefat girls’ High School performed two songs: “Human, human is my desire,” and “I am fire.”

Moderator of the second panel, “Education and culture, have the children gone missing?” was Mr. Roohalamin Amini. Ustad Rahnaward Zariyab, the celebrated scholar and writer, spoke about “the absence of children’s literature in this land”, Mr. Mohammad Abdoho (Member of Parliament) discussed “international conventions and Afghanistan’s laws protecting rights of children” and the title of a speech by Mr. Yassin Negah, poet, writer and civil activist, was “what is the status of children in Afghanistan’s media?”

Describing the conditions of Afghan children as “astounding”, Ustad Zariyab said its reason was: we have severed our bond to the ancient and traditional culture, but modern culture has not found its place yet. This cultural vacuum has confused the children and young people. Children have forgotten the ancient culture and are not familiar with it. The nursery rhymes of mothers are no longer there, there are no signs of tales that mothers told their children, children do not learn to think through solving puzzles, they do not create toys to develop their skill and creativity and so and so forth. Internet and vulgarities in the name of civilisation have replaced the traditional culture. The result is the condition of children in Iraq and Syria.

Expressing dismay about the condition of street children in Afghanistan, Ustad Zariyab said that it was not possible to bring children from the street, war and violence into schools through programmes such as Armanshahr’s. The only institution that can solve the problem is the government.

Mr Abdoho said that there are three stages of life. Most of our people have experienced the stages of childhood and old age; they do not experience the stage of youth. Children living under the auspices of the government are in by far worse conditions than children living under the auspices of violators of human rights, murderers and perpetrators of violence. Even though domestic laws, international treaties and the Convention on the Rights of the Child are ideal – and they have not been implemented in full anywhere – our children receive such treatments that do not comply with any domestic or international principles and laws. People can be more effective than the executive power in implementing the laws.

The last speaker, Mr. Negah compared the conditions of children of the current generation and his own generation and concluded that children have by far much more access to various resources today than his generation had. He offered a list of media pests in relation to children: 1) colder relations between children and families; 2) isolation and resorting to television; 3) decline in children’s education; 4) aggressiveness and tendency to violence of children; 5) decline in the rate of child’s reading; 6) access to harmful information.

Mr Negah asked: “what is the solution?” Invoking the various articles of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, including freedom of expression and access to information, responsibilities of the media in regard to children’s mental and physical health, he asked the media in Afghanistan: how far have you complied with these criteria in your programmes? He went on: socialisation, accepting responsibility, acquaintance with cultural values and identity are among the basic responsibilities of the media in order to fulfil children’s requirements. There is an absence of the three main functions, in particular in regard to children, within the domestic media: “offering information, education and entertainment”.

We do not have a cultural policy on the macro level in the country. The low level of knowledge of the media managers and workers, the low level of knowledge of the audience and the commercialisation of the media are other reasons for the undesirable state of the media. If adequate attention is not paid to two million working and street children today, we shall have two million bandits, smugglers, murderers and thieves a few years later. Most of the present-day Taleban were Afghan children who sold water in Pakistani streets.

After the speeches, the participants asked several questions including: what are your solutions, as civil activists, for the media? There are many incidents of violence and even killing of children; where do Members of Parliament stand in relation to these incidents?

Mr Abdoho replied: The government has fulfilled this responsibility to some extent. Examples of this are free education up to university level. However one cannot expect too much from a government, which receives all of its income from abroad and, at the same time, is facing powerful gangs and strong insecurity. Lack of knowledge leads some of the government people to abuse their positions.

Mr Negah said: unfortunately, we have some media, which reproduce other cultures in their programmes. I emphasise that Afghan children are not only absent in the media, but in the society too.

Ms. Aziza Karimi also criticised the educational standards, saying: our children are raised to tend to violence and aggression from the very beginning.

Mr Rooholamin Amini brought the discussions to a close by reciting poetry from the book “A Light in the Attic”.

In conclusion, more than 1,000 copies of Armanshahr’s books were distributed to the participants. “The Emperor’s New Suit”, “The Little Prince” and “Pocketbook of children’s rights” were the books that Armanshahr has recently published or re-issued for the occasion. The “Pocketbook of children’s rights” is indeed a book intended to familiarise children With their rights, which the UN has ratified.

It is to be noted that Ms Soraya Sobhrang, commissioner of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, Dr Ahmadshah Salehi, senior deputy Minister of Labour and Social Affairs, Mr. Attaullah Khan, director of Human Rights Research and Advocacy Consortium (HARAAC), Fazal Ahmad Azimi, deputy Minister of Policy and Planning of the Ministry of Immigrants and Returnees, had also been invited, who did not attend the programme, although they had all confirmed the participation.