In Kabul, the children are everywhere. You see them scrounging through trash. You see them doing manual labor in the auto body shops, the butchers and the construction sites. They carry teapots and glasses from shop to shop.
You see them moving through the snarled traffic swirling small pots of pungent incense, warding off evil spirits and trying to collect small change. They can be found sleeping in doorways or in the rubble of destroyed buildings. It is estimated that 70,000 children live on the streets of Kabul.
The big news story on CNN on this morning in October is the excitement generated as hundreds of people line up to buy the newest iPhone. I can't stop thinking of the children sitting in the dirt of the refugee camp, or running down the path pushing old bicycle tires, or the young boy sitting next to his overflowing sacks of collected detritus. He has a deep sore on the corner of his mouth that looks terribly infected. These images contrast with an image of an old grandfather, dressed in a spotless, all-white shalwar kameez squatting on the sidewalk outside a huge iron gate, embracing his beautiful, young granddaughter in a huge hug, each smiling broadly, one of the few moments of joy I have witnessed on the streets of Kabul.
(Photo: Johnny Barber)
In Afghanistan, one in five children die before their fifth birthday, (41 percent of the deaths occur in the first month of life). For the children who make it past the first month, many perish due to preventable and highly treatable conditions including diarrhea and pneumonia. Malnourishment affects 39 percent of the children, compared to 25 percent at the start of the US invasion. Fifty-two percent don't have access to clean water. Ninety-four percent of births are not registered. The children are afforded very little legal protection, especially girls, who are still banned from schools in many regions, used as collateral to settle debts and married through arranged marriages as young as ten years old. Though not currently an issue, HIV/AIDS looms as a catastrophic possibility as drug addiction increases significantly, even among women and children. According to United Nations data cited in a 2011 report by the aid group Save the Children, only 16 percent of women use modern contraception (there was no breakdown comparing potential contributing factors – such as lack of access to reproductive health care versus religious and cultural beliefs – to this low use rate). Children on the streets are vulnerable to sexual exploitation. This is why the report, entitled “State of the World's Mothers” ranked Afghanistan last, with only Somalia providing worse outcomes for their children.
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Retired Army Col. John Agoglia said, “A key to America's long-term national security and one of the best ways for our nation to make friends around the world is by promoting the health of women and children in fragile and emerging nations” – in Afghanistan, this strategy, if it is being deployed at all, is failing. Not a single public hospital has been built since the invasion. It is not an impossibility; it is a matter of will. Emergency, an Italian NGO, runs three hospitals and 30 clinics throughout Afghanistan on a budget of seven million dollars per year. This is ISAF's (NATO's International Security Assistance Force) monthly budget for air conditioning.
(Photo: Johnny Barber)
Polls cited by Save the Children co-chairs and former Sens. Bill Frist and Jon Corzine in their op-ed in The Hill are reported to have shown that 90 percent of Americans believe “saving the children” should be a national priority. Children comprise 65 percent of the Afghan population. Afghanistan was named the worst place on earth to be a child. In Afghanistan, children have been sacrificed by the United States, collateral damage in our “war on terror.”
The mothers of these at-risk children are not faring any better. Most are illiterate. Most are chronically malnourished. One woman in 11 dies in pregnancy or childbirth, this compares to one in 2,100 in the US (the highest of any industrialized nation). In Italy and Ireland, the risk of maternal death is less than one in 15,000, and in Greece, it's one in 31,800. Skilled health professionals attend only 14 percent of childbirths. A woman's life expectancy is barely 45 years of age.
(Photo: Johnny Barber)
Women are still viewed as property. A law has been passed by the Karzai regime that legalizes marital rape and requires a woman to get the permission of her husband to leave the house. Domestic violence is a chronic problem. A woman who runs away from home (even if escaping violence) is imprisoned. Upon completion of her sentence, she is returned to the husband. Self-immolation is still common as desperate women try to get out of impossible situations.
Shortly after the US invasion, Laura Bush said, “The plight of women and children in Afghanistan is a matter of deliberate human cruelty, carried out by those who seek to intimidate and control.” President Bush said, “Our coalition has liberated Afghanistan and restored fundamental human rights and freedoms to Afghan women and all the people of Afghanistan.” Actually, the former warlords responsible for the destruction, pillage and rape of Afghanistan were ushered back into power by the United States. In 2007, these very same warlords, now Parliamentarians, passed a bill that granted amnesty for any killings during the civil war. A local journalist said, “The killers are the ones holding the pens, writing the law and continuing their crimes.”
When Malalai Joya addressed the Peace Loya Jirga convened in December 2003, she boldly asked, “Why are we allowing criminals to be present here?” She was thrown out of the assembly. Undeterred, she ran for Parliament, winning in a landslide. She began her maiden speech in Parliament by saying, “My condolences to the people of Afghanistan …” As she continued speaking, the warlord sitting behind her threatened to rape and kill her. The members of Parliament voted her out of Parliament and Karzai upheld her ouster. In hiding, she continues to champion women's rights. She has stated that the only people who can liberate Afghan women are the women themselves. When we spoke briefly to her by phone, she stated that she was surprised to still be alive and needed to cancel our meeting, as it was too dangerous in the current security situation. The Red Cross states that the security situation is the worst it has been in 30 years.
In America, as our total defense budget balloons to 667 billion dollars per year, women and children are faring worse as well. In the “State of the World's Mothers” report, America has dropped from 11th in 2003 to 31st of the developed countries today. We currently rank behind such luminaries as Estonia, Croatia and Slovakia. We fall even farther in regards to our children, going from the fourth ranked country to the 34th. Poverty is on the increase with an estimated one child in five living in poverty. More than 20 million children rely on school lunch programs to keep from going hungry. The number of people living in poverty in America has grown by 2.6 million in just the last 12 months.
Dear reader, I hesitate to bother you with so many statistics, I eliminated the pie charts and graphs, and this report is still dull. After all, the new iPhone has Siri, a “personal assistant” that understands you when you speak. You can verbally instruct it to send a text message and it does! Now that's excitement! CNN states there is no need to panic; the Atlanta store has plenty of phones to fill the demand.
Looking at numbers only, it is easy to avoid the truth of the enormous amount of human suffering they describe. Drive through the streets of any American city and these statistics come alive in the swollen ranks of the homeless. Drive through the streets of Kabul and these statistics come alive in the form of hungry children begging for change.
It is difficult to ascertain what benefit America derives from our continued military presence in Afghanistan, though exploitation of natural resources certainly plays a role. Hundreds of billions of dollars are being spent in a military strategy that is failing by all indicators. Yet, the politicians in this country continue to back this strategy. Arms dealers and contractors, like G.E. and Boeing, all with lobbyists on Capitol Hill, continue to reap big financial rewards and, in turn, reward politicians with financial support. Our politicians claim to be “tough on terror” and profess we are “winning.” But by what measure do they ascertain this? The only Afghan people benefiting from our presence are the people supporting the occupation forces, the warlords and the drug lords. As the poppy fields produce record yields, “poppy palaces” are springing up all over Kabul, ostentatious signs that someone is benefiting from our interference.
One measure to judge the success of a nation is its ability to protect its most vulnerable populations. America is not succeeding. The plight of women and children in Afghanistan remains a matter of deliberate human cruelty, carried out by those who seek to intimidate and control. When will our politicians hear the desperate cry of the street children of Afghanistan, who, with all the incense in the world, simply can't ward off the evil of our occupation?
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