Many young teens in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan often quit school to work as vendors in markets or on street corners. In Russia, the Labor Code prohibits regular employment for children under the age of 16, while both Uzbek and Tajik laws only discourage such labor. However, social workers say they cannot control the situation because the social-security systems in both countries are not able to offer other options.
Prague, 27 May 2003 (RFE/RL) This is a familiar market cry in Central Asia: "Come along, buy my bread!" "Fresh bread!" "Bread made from milk and butter!"
Visitors to almost every market in Uzbekistan or Tajikistan see young people between the ages of 11 and 14 selling bread and vegetables or offering to deliver groceries or other items in their two-wheeled carts. Some offer to wash people's cars or shine their shoes.
Shahnoza, a 14-year-old girl from Dushanbe, sells candy and coffee on a street corner near her house. Like other young teens who work in the markets or on the streets, Shahnoza does not have a job contract or standard working hours.
"I sell biscuits, wafers and coffee from the early morning until 5 or 6 in the evening. I don't go to school. I am supposed to be attending the ninth grade. My father died, and we have to look after ourselves. I have two sisters and two brothers. All of us became street vendors. I earn three to four somonies [about $1] a day and buy flour and other food," Shahnoza told RFE/RL.
According to Uzbek and Tajik laws, children are not allowed to perform hard physical work. However, the laws in both countries don't stop students from quitting school at an early age and going to work instead. The situation is similar in other countries in the region.
The teens say poverty forces them to earn money to support their families. Some of them have been forced to become the breadwinners in their families because their fathers have gone to Russia in search of work and return home only once a year. Other young workers come from large families where the parents cannot afford to feed them.
These young people complain that some people refuse to pay them for their services, but they have no one to turn to because their work is not legal.
Sayora, a teacher in a Tajik secondary school, told an RFE/RL correspondent in Tashkent that children are being exploited but that hardly anyone cares about their rights and welfare. "I see many children who are thin and weak but who do the kinds of physical work some adults wouldn't do," Sayora said. "They wash cars, girls do cleaning jobs along with their mothers. They do other people's washing and cleaning for miserable wages. No one cares about their health."
Sayora said teachers and school officials -- who are often underpaid themselves -- do not pay much attention to children's attendance and performance at school. "Some of my fellow teachers work at the same market with their pupils to earn extra money," Sayora said.
Nargis Nurullokhoja, a Tajik sociologist based in Dushanbe, told RFE/RL that social services in Tajikistan cannot control the situation because they are unable to offer other options. "[Social workers] know that the state does not have enough money for social security systems. It does not have enough funds to provide financial support for the children. We used to have an adequate social security system, but it has collapsed," Nurullokhoja said.
Ibod Rahimov is the head of the Youth, Sport, and Tourism Department in the presidential administration of Tajikistan. He said his department has prepared a special project to support children who come from impoverished families and that it has been sent to the government for approval.
"We have asked relevant ministries, and governmental and nongovernmental organizations, as well as some donor countries, to cooperate with us in dealing with the problem. I cannot give you any details about the budget of this program. But I can tell you that we need a significant amount of money to eliminate the problem. The government will pay most of the fund. We do acknowledge that this problem exists in our country, and we cannot ignore it," Rahimov told RFE/RL.
Rahimov said all of the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States share similar challenges when it comes to eradicating child labor.
However, Anvar Zokirov, a high-ranking official in the Uzbek Education Ministry, insisted that unofficial child labor is not a significant issue in his country. "Every child is registered in our country. It is not a widespread problem here," he said.
Every autumn, in a tradition dating from the Soviet era, Tajik and Uzbek authorities order the countries' schools to close and send students into the cotton fields to pick the crop. For many weeks, students live in barracks that sometimes have no water or electricity. They receive meager wages for their work.
Officials from both countries were reluctant to talk to RFE/RL about the issue.
Children's rights activists condemn the two governments for exploiting young teens as cheap laborers. But according to Uzbek teacher Sayora, the governments and civil societies in both countries ignore all criticisms. "It is pity that no one cares about the issue and everyone says that it is simply the way it is," Sayora said. "It is pity that parents force their children to earn money. What kind of future will these children have?"
Shahnoza, the teenage merchant in Dushanbe, said she tries not to think about her future. She said she is happy as long as no one bothers her or tries to prevent her from earning the money she said her family desperately needs. "I don't have any dreams. I don't like it when the police officers force me not to work. I want them to leave me alone. I need to earn some money -- two, three somonies to take home every evening," she said.
(Mirasror Ahrorov of RFE/RL's Tashkent bureau contributed to this story.)