While some children toil out of necessity for their families, in some countries the use of child labor is a state policy.
Children, some of them as young as 7 years old, can be found working at virtually every bazaar in Central Asia. They sell anything from food to clothing and cosmetics, and preteen boys often push carts in outdoor markets while young girls from the countryside offer to work as housekeepers.
The money they earn is often a lifeline for their families. Poverty is the main reason these kids leave school and work.
"I am proud that I work and get paid; I distribute bread," says 13-year-old Safar from the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, adding, "I wish I could go to school together with my classmates, but life is hard and I have to work."
Officials in Central Asia have long denied that children are forced to work. Many contend that the kids are helping their parents after school and that it is rural residents themselves who send their children into the fields to earn much-needed cash.
Firuz Saidov, an expert on child labor at the Center for Strategic Studies under Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, admits that there is no way to stop child labor because many Tajiks live in poverty and children are crucial for families to have enough money to survive.
"Children work mostly in trade, agriculture, and in the street -- they wash cars. It's hard to stop this in Tajikistan," Saidov says. "Their rights are violated both by employers and police."
But in many rural areas, particularly in places like Uzbekistan, it is the government that forces children to pick cotton. The practice has existed since the Soviet era and continued when the Central Asian countries gained independence in 1991 -- even after they joined international agreements banning child labor.
Not An Official Priority
Human rights activists say that cotton brings cash to the state coffers as well as to the pockets of the ruling elite in some countries.
Jovid Juraev, of the international organization Save the Children in Dushanbe, is critical of the Tajik authorities' stance on the use of child labor. He says there is no political will to end it despite official pronouncements to the contrary.
"The use of children in cotton picking has become a national catastrophe -- some 200,000 Tajik children are forced to do hard and harmful work [with the number increasing during the main harvest season]," Juraev says. "It amazes me that despite the decrees made by the president and the government, children are still subject to economic exploitation. And no one dares to fight it."
In neighboring Uzbekistan, the world's third-largest cotton exporter, the use of child labor in the cotton sector is a state policy.
As the cotton harvest begins in September, schools are shut down and thousands of children are bused to fields, sometimes with a police escort. They pick what is dubbed the "white gold" that brings around $1 billion in annual exports for Uzbekistan.
Uzbek authorities have been under fire from international human rights groups to stop using forced child labor in the cotton industry. A campaign launched in November brought some results, as major clothing chains including Tesco, Marks & Spencer, Gap, and H&M -- as well as textile producers in South Asia -- resolved to stop buying Uzbek cotton fiber.
The Long Haul
Nadezhda Atayeva, who heads the Paris-based Association on Human Rights in Central Asia, says that "noticeable progress" has been made in the campaign to boycott Uzbek cotton. She says the Uzbek authorities seem to have stopped denying the use of child labor and are willing to hold a dialogue with human rights groups and international organizations.
The Uzbek parliament adopted a law in January on "Guarantees of the Rights of the Child." It was followed by ratification of the International Labor Organization's (ILO) convention on the worst forms of child labor and minimum age.
Atayeva praises the moves but adds that it is crucial for the Uzbek government to give greater economic freedom to farmers and thus reduce the incentive to use the low-paid or unpaid labor of children.
She also says the coming cotton harvest will be a litmus test for the Uzbek government.
"Despite those positive changes, it is important that international organizations have the possibility to monitor the situation in the autumn," Atayeva says. "Every interested party should be able to go to [Uzbek] cotton fields and check if there are children below the age of 15 working there and, if so, what their working conditions are."
History Of Ambivalence
In Turkmenistan as well, child labor is widely used during the cotton harvest, although the country is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. It also passed laws in 2002 and 2005 prohibiting the employment of children under the age of 16 and regulating a child's right to protection from exploitation.
The late Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov frequently issued statements on the necessity of ending child labor, but the situation remained largely unchanged throughout his presidency.
The U.S. State Department estimated that more than 1 million children were part of the labor force in 2000. More recent statistics are hard to find.
Last year, Niyazov's successor, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, made a similar statement. But human rights activists say children are still widely used for labor in Turkmenistan.
In Kazakhstan, children work in cotton and tobacco fields and as unskilled laborers in urban areas. In recent years, children from neighboring Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan have been working in Kazakhstan along with their parents.
Dana Zhandayeva, Kazakh project coordinator of ILO's child-labor project, tells RFE/RL that the situation with forced child labor has improved since the Kazakh government ratified two ILO conventions (one on a minimum employment age and the other on the worst forms of child exploitation) and asked for international organizations' assistance to stop the use of child labor.
"[The Kazakh government's] initial position was ambiguous: officials denied the problem. Then they started saying the problem exists only in the cotton industry. Now, they admit this phenomenon exists in Kazakhstan, although not as acutely as in neighboring countries," Zhandayeva says. "They admit the need to tackle the problem although they try to say that only the kids of migrants from Uzbekistan work. In general, I cannot say the government is not acting and not taking measures [against child labor]."
There are bright spots. Zhandayeva says that in Kyrgyzstan, for instance, the government has been at the forefront of the fight against child slavery. She says the Kyrgyz government is the only one in Central Asia that not only cooperates with international organizations to fight child labor but also allocates funds to stop it.
RFE/RL Tajik Service correspondents Zarangez Navruzshoeva in Dushanbe and Mirzo Salimov in Prague contributed to this report