Preserving hope in Afghanistan

UNICEF Child Alert/December 2019

Afghanistan. A boy stands in an orphanage.

Protecting children in the world’s most lethal conflict

The levels of violence that children in Afghanistan are subjected to, day after day, is shocking. The fact that this has been going on for so many years is a terrible indictment of the parties involved. The international community cannot stand by and let this continue. This can and must never be the norm.

An average of nine children were killed or maimed every day in the first nine months of 2019

“Even by Afghanistan’s grim standards, 2019 has been particularly deadly for children,” says UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore. “Children, their families and communities suffer the horrific consequences of conflict each and every day. Those same children are desperate to grow up, go to school, learn skills, and build a future for themselves.”

Besides conflict, Afghanistan is struggling with natural disasters, like the severe drought in 2018, and the floods which affected 250,000 people earlier this year. More than half the population are living below the poverty line.

The resilience and fortitude of the Afghan people is extraordinary. Their ability to bounce back, dream, innovate, celebrate, push against social norms and demonstrate goodwill remains a constant motivation.

A deadly place for children

Afghanistan. A boy plays at a former military barrack.
A boy plays by a former military barracks in southern Afghanistan.

Every day, an average of nine children are killed or injured in Afghanistan, a country that has become the world’s most lethal war zone after forty years of conflict and turmoil. Between 2009 and 2018, armed conflict killed nearly 6,500 children and injured close to 15,000 others.

Suicide bombs and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) have been an important factor behind the high casualty figures. In the first nine months of 2019, these methods, employed by armed groups, were responsible for 42 per cent of civilian deaths and injuries.

A place to learn even amid violence

Afghanistan. A boy studies in a classroom.
UNICEF/UNI230362/Bouvet, VII Photo
A boy studies in a classroom at an orphanage in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

Around 3.7 million school-age children are out of school, equaling 43 per cent of the primary-aged population, with those living in rural areas especially affected. Girls at all ages are less likely to attend school than boys.

Some progress is being made – improving literacy levels, for example – but ongoing conflict, traditional and cultural barriers due to social or gender expectations, the lack of infrastructure and trained teachers, and national financial and political bottlenecks are all factors that make the situation in Afghanistan uniquely challenging. 

Youth are a tremendous asset to the country. Yet in 2017, 42 per cent of them were not in employment, education or training. Around 400,000 youth enter the labour market annually. It’s critically important that adolescents have the opportunity to acquire the skills they need to find jobs and livelihoods.

Polio’s front line

A child receives a vaccination against polio in a suburb of Kabul.
UNICEF/UN0339992/Frank Dejongh
A child receives a vaccination against polio in a suburb of Kabul.

As one of three countries where the wild poliovirus is still found, Afghanistan is critical to the global struggle to eradicate the disease. After years of hard effort, 96 per cent of Afghanistan is polio-free. However, 2018 saw an increase in polio cases – from 13 in 2016 to 21 by the end of November – concentrated in the impoverished south of the country. There have been 22 further cases in 2019.

Ongoing conflict and political instability make it difficult to access hard-to-reach areas, and lingering mistrust of vaccinations continues to be a challenge. In addition to providing polio vaccinations, UNICEF and its partners are taking an approach that combines immunization with other vital services – including programmes for safe water and health – in order to respond to the needs of communities, especially in the most remote areas.

A sustainable answer to growing water needs

Afghanistan. Children collect water.
UNICEF/UN0339408/Frank Dejongh
Children collect water in the Argo district of Badakhshan Province, in northeastern Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is becoming one of the world's most water-stressed nations. With the population growing, the needs are growing daily. At least 35 per cent of the population lack access to clean water.

The lack of proper sanitation presents a further challenge. Although around 80 per cent of Afghan families have access to toilets, only about half are designed to keep waste separate from human contact.

Malnutrition: A long-term crisis

Afghanistan. A child is screened for malnutrition.
UNICEF/UN0339436/Frank Dejongh
A baby is screened for malnutrition at a hospital in the Kishim district of Badakhshan Province in northeastern Afghanistan.

Altogether, around 600,000 Afghan children under the age of five are affected by severe acute malnutrition (SAM), the extreme form of the condition which can kill a child. Around 2 million children under five suffer malnourishment of a degree likely to impact negatively on their long-term physical and mental health. SAM is not Afghanistan’s only nutrition-related challenge. About 4 in 10 children suffer from stunting, which means they are short for their weight, a sign of chronic undernutrition during the most critical periods of growth.

“The lack of an adequate nutritious food intake, ill health due to poor sanitation and hygiene, and inadequate access to health services – these are the main factors that contribute to high rates of malnutrition here,” says Maureen Gallagher, Chief of Nutrition with UNICEF Afghanistan. Additionally, thousands of families have been displaced by humanitarian crisis and conflict, increasing their vulnerability to hardship.

How UNICEF is helping

Afghanistan. UNICEF Afghanistan staff distribute new school bags and notebooks.
UNICEF Afghanistan staff distribute new school bags and notebooks as the school year begins in Surkhrod district in Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan.

For more than 65 years, UNICEF and its national and international partners have responded to the needs of Afghan children and women who have been directly affected by conflict and natural disasters, and who have struggled with the broader effects of poverty and underdevelopment.

During the course of 2019, UNICEF child protection, health and polio, nutrition, education, and water, sanitation and hygiene programmes have reached over 12 million children. Among others:

In 2019 UNICEF and partners:

  • Provided textbooks, stationery, and other materials for 187,000 children living in insecure areas, and where schools have often been targeted.
  • UNICEF supported 77 mobile health outreach teams that provide immunization, as well as maternal and child health services to 1.2 million people.

In 2018, UNICEF and partners:

  • Provided access to improved drinking water sources to about 197,000 people in 123 communities nationwide. Meanwhile, UNICEF’s humanitarian water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) response reached 1.1 million internally displaced people, returnees and drought survivors.
  • Provided treatment with ready-to-use therapeutic food paste to over 277,000 children suffering from Severe Acute Malnutrition, 18 per cent more than the previous year.

A call to action

As long as the conflict in Afghanistan continues, the parties involved must protect children and safeguard their rights to education, health, water, sanitation, hygiene and other services. It is their obligation under international humanitarian law and international human rights law.