Child protection

Protecting Afghanistan’s most vulnerable children

Child Protection
UNICEF Afghanistan/Omid


Half of Afghanistan’s 30 million people are under 18. They are exposed to extreme situations of violence and abuse due to ongoing fighting, displacement, a poor economy, and harmful social norms and practices. The increased number and frequency of conflict-related incidents has caused an alarming rise in child casualties.

Afghan girls face early marriage, honour killings, domestic abuse, and sexual violence. Afghan boys suffer many of the same risks, along with military recruitment into armed conflict, and sexual exploitation. Both girls and boys are exposed to hazardous labour practices, contact with landmines, and violence at home.

Afghanistan is second in migration only to Syria. Over the last decade, 2.7 million Afghans have left their country in the hopes of finding a better life. Within the country more than one million have been displaced. Forced migration disrupts communities and often results in the victimization of children and adolescents through early marriage. 

Existing protection services are inadequate, especially in remote and in warring communities: there is widespread failure to promote and protect the rights of children. 

Child marriages are illegal but widespread in Afghanistan: One third of Afghan girls marry before their 18th birthday.

A young girl in shadow looks out of a window
UNICEF Afghanistan/Madhok
Marrying girls under 18 years old is rooted in gender discrimination, encouraging premature child bearing and giving preference to boys’ education. Child marriage is also a strategy for economic survival as families marry off their daughters to reduce their economic burden.

Children on the move
Running from conflict and driven by poverty or climate change, large numbers of Afghan youths leave the country in search of a better life abroad. Usually boys aged between 12 and 17 – but sometimes as young as 10 years-old – they are among the most vulnerable people on earth . Some will seek employment in Iran as undocumented workers; others are migrants making the risky journey to Turkey or Europe. If detained, they are sent back to Afghanistan. Such returns pose significant risks for young people, who are often separated from their families. Alone and in limbo, they are an easy target for smugglers and human traffickers.

Inadequate protection systems
With three-fourths of Afghan children between the ages of two and 14 reporting violent discipline at home, the need for protection from violence is clear. Nearly all Afghan women (90 per cent) believe a husband is justified in beating his wife, which means children are likely frequent witnesses to violence, if not also victims themselves. More than a third of boys and a quarter of girls between the ages of five and 17 are engaged in hazardous child labour. To make matters worse, nearly half of the girls are married before they turn 18 where they perform domestic labour and are frequently exposed to domestic abuse.

Children and armed conflict
Preventing children from enlisting in government security forces and armed groups is a challenge, as a lack of reliable birth records makes age verification difficult and a high rate of poverty drives youth to find steady pay. Internal displacement, forced migration, and ongoing conflict also increase the risk of young people being recruited in armed groups.

A young male unaccompanied minor poses for photo on a bus at the border between Iran and Afghanistan.
UNICEF Afghanistan/2016/Froutan
Rahim lost everything after he was sent back to Afghanistan from Iran, where he had been working as an undocumented migrant. An unaccompanied minor, he arrived by bus at the Islam Qala border in western Afghanistan where UNICEF, through its partner War Child UK, will help to trace his information and reunite him with his family.

Stopping abuse and exploitation

UNICEF works to strengthen the child protection system, including the legal framework, to protect the most vulnerable children.

Transforming social norms and practices
UNICEF engages religious and traditional leaders in communities, government, and civil society in nationwide efforts to protect children from practices such as child marriage, violent corporal punishment, domestic abuse, and child labour. We also work with the Ministry of Hajj, the key ministry for addressing religious affairs in Afghanistan, to train religious leaders about the importance of Islam in ensuring child protection.

Protecting the most vulnerable
To protect and provide services to Afghan children, UNICEF has worked with the government of Afghanistan to set up the Child Protection Action Network (CPAN), a coalition of government departments, non-governmental organizations, and community and religious leaders all working together to protect children’s rights. In 2017, the Child Protection Action Network had responded to nearly 5,000 child protection violations across 110 districts in 33 provinces. 

Afghan children face a lot of trauma due to conflict in the country. War, displacement, exposure to violence and natural disasters can severely impact their psychosocial well-being and development. UNICEF and its partners help to set up child-friendly spaces for children in humanitarian emergencies. These safe havens provide a space where they can play, learn, and socialize, and help to restore a sense of childhood after a crisis or during a protracted emergency.

Girls displaced by conflict in neighbouring provinces play at a child-friendly space in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan.
UNICEF Afghanistan/2017/Sharukhi
Saima, 12, plays with her friends at a child-friendly space for internally displaced people in Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan.

Reuniting unaccompanied minors and their families
UNICEF and its partners support the reintegration of unaccompanied minors from neighbouring countries, providing psychosocial support and helping to gather tracing information that can identify young migrants before transporting them to transit centres to be reunited with their families.

Preventing recruitment of children
To prevent recruitment of children into armed groups, UNICEF provides careful monitoring and reporting in cooperation with the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, and other organizations. UNICEF technical staff conduct careful monitoring, advocacy, and inter-agency coordination on all issues affecting children in armed conflict. 

The United Nations and the Afghan government have implemented a strategy to prevent the recruitment of underage children into the Afghan National Security Forces. The UN’s partnership and support to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission Children’s Rights Unit has contributed to an increase in monitoring and detecting of child rights violations in armed conflict, particularly in remote and hazardous areas. 

Since child recruitment is often hidden by inadequate age verification procedures, UNICEF supports the establishment of Child Protection Centres within police departments and recruitment offices. Eleven such Child Protection Units were established in 32 provinces, helping to prevent the recruitment of more than 1,410 children in 2017.

Justice for children
Few young people can afford legal protection and even fewer receive free legal aid. UNICEF helps the Afghan government provide greater access to justice for children who are victims, witnesses, and alleged offenders. To ensure the harmonization of existing laws and safeguards for the protection of children, comprehensive legislation (The Child Act) has been finalized. 

Infographic: Birth registration rates in Afghanistan

Birth registration

Preventing underage recruitment, unlawful detention, and ensuring access to child protection measures and proper health care is complicated by the fact that only a third of children under five years of age have a birth certificate. 

In order to increase birth registration, UNICEF and partners support the Ministry of Interior’s Vital Statistics Department. Working with communities and families helps the public understand the important link between registering their children and protecting them. An online registration process has been established and parents in 28 out of 34 provinces are able to register their children’s birth on a central data base.