Students play truant to work in Helmand’s poppy
LASHKARGAH, 18 March 2008 (IRIN) - Esmatullah, aged
14, had pains in his back and legs from working in a
poppy field in Helmand Province, southern Afghanistan,
on 5 March. He has been absent from school since that
Esmatullah hails from the province’s Marja District
where he attended school, but due to insecurity and
repeated attacks on schools, Esmatullah’s family sent
him to Lashkargah, the provincial capital, to continue
When he returned to his home village for a weekend
to visit his family, his uncle told him to help him
clear their vast poppy fields of weeds.
In the run-up to the poppy harvest in May and June
farmers in Helmand Province weed the poppy fields –
enabling poppy flowers to grow faster and stronger and
produce more opium.
Helmand Province alone produced about 40 percent of
Afghanistan’s 8,200 metric tonnes of opium in 2007,
the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported.
“I have to work and make money to pay for a rented
room in Lashkargah and pay for other expenses while I
am attending school there,” Esmatullah told IRIN.
Another 12-year-old student from Helmand’s Nad Ali
District said he, his father and brothers worked as
labourers in poppy fields to feed their extended
family and pay for his education in Lashkargah.
“We do not have our own land, but we earn 200-250
Afghanis [US$4-5] per person for a day’s work on
others’ fields,” Gul said.
Hundreds absent from school
Helmand Province is widely affected by
insurgency-related violence and dozens of schools have
remained closed, particularly in rural areas, due to
frequent attacks on educational facilities, teachers
As a result, hundreds of students from rural areas
have flocked to schools in Lashkargah where schools
have remained open despite widespread security
threats. Many of these students live in rented rooms
in Lashkargah, and cannot regularly travel to their
homes for both security and financial reasons.
“I pay 4,000 Afghanis [$80] per month for a shared
room in Lashkargah,” said Abdul Hadi, a student from
Marja District, adding that he had to work in poppy
fields to pay for his education expenses because his
parents could not help.
Most students had reportedly been absent from
schools in Lashkargah in March 2008, the provincial
Department of Education (DoE) confirmed.
“This is very unfortunate… hundreds of students
have gone to the poppy fields to earn money,” said
Rahimullah, the director of DoE in Helmand Province.
Humanitarian reporting on the plight of children in
insurgency-affected provinces in southern Afghanistan,
particularly Helmand Province, is limited owing to the
lack of reliable facts, figures and information, aid
workers and media reports say.
Due to security restrictions no non-governmental
organisations (NGOs) dealing with children’s rights
and protection, including the UN Children’s Fund
(UNICEF), operate in Helmand Province.
UN agencies and other aid organisations rely on the
limited capacity of provincial government bodies to
conduct assessments, deliver aid and implement
“Lack of access is our major problem,” conceded
Shamsullah Tanwer, a researcher on the rights of
children in Helmand and Kandahar provinces with
Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC).
“The issue of children working in poppy fields is a
serious problem,” Tanwer told IRIN on the phone from
his office in Kandahar. “It’s the right of every child
to go to school… and child labour is illegal,
particularly on illicit poppy fields,” he said.
Children working in poppy fields not only miss out
on their education and do an onerous job over long
hours, but are also vulnerable to drug addiction,
particularly during harvest season, experts say.
“The challenge is how we can reach, help and
support these children,” said Tanwer of the AIHRC.
According to the UNODC, Afghanistan supplies an
estimated 93 per cent of the global illicit market for
Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), a
project the Office for the Coordination of
Humanitarian Affairs. IRIN is UN humanitarian news and
information service, but may not necessarily reflect
the views of the United Nations or its agencies.
[This report does not necessarily
reflect the views of the United Nations]