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Finding a way to stop child recruitment in Afghanistan

By Gulistan Mirzaei

UNICEF’s launches its Humanitarian Action for Children 2015 on 29 January. The global appeal highlights the situation of children and women living in some of the most challenges circumstances, the support required to help them survive and thrive, and the results UNICEF and its partners have achieved and are working towards. The 2015 appeal calls for US$3.1 billion to reach more than 60 million children in 71 countries, including Afghanistan.

For more information about Afghanistan's humanitarian appeal, visit www.unicef.org/appeals/afghanistan

In Afghanistan, 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.

HERAT, Afghanistan, 7 October 2014 – The temperature is over 37°C (98°F) in this ancient city in western Afghanistan, but the young men standing in line in front of a police recruitment centre don’t seem to mind the heat.

© UNICEF Video
Police training in Herat. It's one of the most dangerous jobs in Afghanistan, but also a reliable source of income.

They have come to enrol in the Afghan National Police (ANP) – one of the most dangerous jobs in the country, but also a reliable source of income for tens of thousands of Afghans.

They carry ID cards to prove they are at least 18, the minimum age for joining the armed forces. But it can be hard to verify anyone’s correct age in a country in which decades of conflict and instability have meant there has been no birth registration system in place.

Serious concern

A recently released United Nations Secretary-General’s report on Children and Armed Conflict highlights issues of serious concern regarding early recruitment of children by all parties to the conflict. The report states that, in 2013, at least 97 boys – some as young as 8 years old – were recruited into armed groups. Children are recruited mainly by armed opposition groups, but also by national security forces.

Colonel Khaliqdad is the chief of recruitment at this police centre in Herat. He says that a few children under the age of 18 try to register for the police at their centre each month. 


Officer Maryam is the police recruitment officer at the centre. She is faced with a difficult task. Many Afghans have a tazkera, or national ID card, but the tazkera is often far from accurate, and can be easily forged. Officer Maryam must determine the age of these young men based not only on the authenticity of their tazkera, but also on their physical appearance. If she thinks the applicant is a minor, she tells him he cannot join the police. 

“When I ask them for the reasons why they want to join the police force, they usually say it’s because of poverty,” Officer Maryam says. “Maybe their father was killed or is disabled or has disappeared or has become a drug addict. Then, they begin to argue with me when I won’t accept them. My heart breaks for their situation, but I have to firmly tell them it’s against the law.”

© UNICEF Video
Officer Maryam, a police recruitment officer, interviews an applicant. “When I ask them for the reasons why they want to join the police force, they usually say it’s because of poverty,” she says.

UNICEF is working closely with the Government to address the issue of recruitment of children. With the training of screening officers like Officer Maryam, in 2013, child protection units within ANP recruitment centres in the western region rejected 132 boys from enlisting voluntarily.

In Herat, according to Colonel Khaliqdad, “[W]e’ve never recruited a single child into our police force.”

Registering births

Birth certificates are a passport to protection for children – including protection against being recruited into armed forces or groups. Proof of birthdate would make it easier for Colonel Khaliqdad and Officer Maryam to verify the age of applicants to the police force.

As part of a joint initiative between the Ministry of Public Health and UNICEF, hospitals across the country are required to record the births of every baby delivered. Fariba, a midwife at Herat Maternity Hospital, says that each baby delivered receives vaccinations and then a birth registration card.

“We usually deliver 100 or more babies here every day, and we try to register them all,” she says. “Sometimes a child’s mother is from a remote village and doesn’t understand birth registration, but we do our best to explain it to her.”

Targeting the root of the problem

Screening and birth registration go a long way towards ending recruitment of children into armed forces. But, both Officer Maryam and Colonel Khaliqdad report that children say that poverty drives them to try to register for the police force.

An initiative of the Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs, Martyrs and Disabled is trying to support these children. At the recruitment centre, when Officer Maryam determines that an applicant is under 18 years of age, she doesn’t send him away with no other options. She introduces him to the Office of Labour and Social Affairs. This office seeks to teach skills that will help these young boys earn an income to support their families.



UNICEF Photography: Released from armed groups

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