In Afghanistan, sustained conflict has forced an impossible choice on children: to work or to learn?

Youth Skills in South Asia

UNICEF Afghanistan
Bust shot of Asem staring at the camera with an egg-white wall in the blackground.
UNICEF Afghanistan/2019
18 September 2019

Afghanistan – At the age of 14, Asem fled his home in Afghanistan to help his family escape poverty. 

“I dropped out of school to work in Iran,” Asem said. “I was earning 6,000 a month – $80 – to work as a gardener.”

Asem is one of the countless adolescent boys who leave their homes in an attempt to start over. In Afghanistan, more than three decades of violence has fractured the country’s education system and shattered families’ abilities to make money. A 2019 study showed that more than 56 per cent of children live in multi-dimensional poverty in the country – a condition that is often the result of chronic conflict.

“I was only in Iran for five months,” Asem said. “Then I was caught by the Iranian police and deported back to Afghanistan. I came home penniless since I had to pay smugglers to cover my living costs in Iran.”

Asem came back home defeated. But almost immediately, he was linked with a reintegration programme that helped Asem return to his family – and, importantly, re-enter the classroom. Asem made his way back to Mazar, a city in northern Afghanistan, and was reunited with his family of nine.

“When I returned to Mazar, I re-enrolled into school,” Asem said. “My favourite subject is mathematics. I think it will help me in my future career.”

Today, Asem is in the ninth grade. He attends classes in the morning and works alongside his father in the afternoon. After moving back in with his family, Asem has grown a new appreciation for his father’s craft: carpentry. 

“I am keen on learning carpentry. I want to expand my father’s business by making the best doors and windows in Mazar.”

– Asem

After years of conflict, apprenticeship programmes are nearly impossible to find in Mazar. Instead, Asem is learning everything he can from his father.

“I am learning a lot from him,” Asem said. “The most important skills that I need to develop are patience and listening to customers, even if I disagree with them.” 

Over the past few months, Asem’s father, Asef, has expanded his son’s knowledge of carpentry. Asef has taught Asem to differentiate between different types of wood and has impressed upon him the importance of design, planning and time management. Importantly, he has also taught Asem how to work with – and satisfy – customers. 

Asem grinds a piece of lumber with an electric sander, wearing a brown kurta.
UNICEF Afghanistan/2019
Asem, 15, is learning the tricks of carpentry at his father’s carpentry shop. His passion is to expand his father’s carpentry and to produce quality doors and windows.

“There are many carpentry skills that Asem needs to acquire,” Asef said. “But the most important skills are critical thinking and cooperation. I want Asem to continue his education and have a professional career.”

Though Asem is in a better place than he once was, he remains at risk of dropping out of school again. Asem’s large family is burdened by poverty, and even with Asem’s help, the carpentry business depends on available projects and interested customers. Asem is trying to build out his father’s business, but sometimes, his determination distracts him from his education.

“My days are long, and I come home exhausted,” Asem said. “I cannot do my homework, and often, this gets me in trouble with my teacher.”

Thousands of children like Asem are facing a difficult choice – whether to put education or financial stability first. Combining work and studies can help children acquire new skills, but sometimes, it can hurt their chances of succeeding in the classroom.