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Central Asia: Child Workers Shoulder Heavy Burden

A boy guides his cart across a street near a Kyrgyz market (RFE/RL) June 11, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The day begins early for Dona, a 17-year-old Tajik boy who has already spent five years working in a Dushanbe market. He arrives as early as 6 a.m., seven days a week, to load and cart around the heavy loads of shoppers. Dona says that by the time he finishes at around 8 p.m. -- having earned the equivalent of about $6 for 14 hours of work -- he can hardly walk.

"When I go home, I'm already exhausted," Dona says. "My mom tells me to eat my food, but sometimes I can't eat because I'm too tired and can't manage to stay awake. I fall asleep. My legs hurt. Early in the morning the next day, I go back to the market. When there are no customers, then we play games of tag."

Those few hours -- when Dona and other working children play kids' games -- are the only time of the day when they say they can have fun. They have no vacations, no holidays; for the most part, they get no proper education, and they don't know anything about their rights as minors.

Tens Of Thousands

International labor officials estimate that there are tens of thousands of children throughout Central Asia -- some as young as seven years old -- working to support themselves and their families.

Many of them are employed in unskilled jobs -- pushing carts, washing cars, or selling plastic bags, vegetables, or other goods in markets or on the street. In rural areas, many children work alongside their parents in cotton fields or vegetable farms, helping them tend and harvest crops.

Some Kyrgyz families take their underage children with them for seasonal work on tobacco farms in neighboring Kazakhstan.

See our photo gallery from RFE/RL's Central Asian services on child workers in the region

Twelve-year-old Ulukbek was sent by his family to make a living in the big city. Ulukbek is from Kyrgyzstan's southern Osh region, but now he sells shoes in a Bishkek market.

"I earn about 50 soms [$1.50] a day," Ulukbek tells RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service. "Sometimes what I earn during the day is barely enough for my own food. I save 25 soms a day and send it to my village in Osh. I have hard times during the hot season and also during winter. Sometimes customers refuse to pay -- they argue, steal, or cheat me. I live in such hardship. I miss Osh."

In Uzbekistan, the authorities close secondary schools in the fall so they can send children to harvest the country's massive cotton crop.

Legislation And Reality

In most of Central Asia, the legal working age is 18. But children are allowed to work at part-time jobs -- with parental consent -- at the age of 16.

Tajik and Turkmen labor laws in some circumstances allow children as young as 14 or 15 years old to work.

The laws clearly state that children may only be given jobs that help "broaden their knowledge" and do not harm their health or development. Children are prohibited from working long hours or night shifts. And employers are not supposed to expose their workforce to "hazardous jobs" or excessive lifting.

Legislation across the region also requires that all children get a formal education. But the reality is different.

It is virtually impossible to get reliable estimates of the number of Central Asia's children who leave school in their early teens for low-paying jobs in which they are frequently overworked.

Governments and nongovernmental groups in the region say they have been trying to tackle the problem in a number of ways.

The Turkmen government recently opened a summer camp in Gekdere, a mountainous resort outside the capital, Ashgabat, where about 1,300 children can spend the holidays. But in a country of more than 4 million, demand for the camp's swimming pool, sports and entertainment centers, and Internet connections is likely to outstrip supply.

In Tajikistan, dozens of Soviet-era leisure camps have been renovated. Labor unions have sought to help, contributing up to 70 percent of the price to help bridge the gap between the cost of those camps and the means of poor families who want to send their children there. Some nongovernmental groups organize special leisure and educational summer centers, where orphans and children from deprived families can stay free of charge.

Similar summer centers operate in Kazakhstan, Kyrgzystan, and Uzbekistan.

Finding A Way Forward

Judita Reichenberg is regional adviser on child protection for the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF). She emphasizes that summer camps alone cannot solve the problem.

"Schooling, education, making sure that every child has access to quality [and] good education, and that after school there is a possibility also for creativity, for activities that are stimulating for child development, in addition to helping those families that are falling under the poverty line -- a combination of these three minimum aspects might be a way forward in addressing child labor," Reichenberg says.

It might take some time for governments in the region to tackle the problems associated child workers.

In the meantime, thousands of young boys and girls -- with little or no say in the matter -- will spend their childhoods on farms and in markets, trying to help their parents to make the ends meet.

(RFE/RL's Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik, Turkmen, and Uzbek services contributed to this report)

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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

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