KABUL, Afghanistan (September 14, 2012) — When Suraiya was six years old, her older brother eloped with a neighbor's daughter. In an attempt to buy peace, Suraiya's parents gave her to the neighbor's family.
For four years, the family forced her to perform heavy household chores and kicked and thrashed her with knives, sticks and iron rods.
Suraiya escaped from the family, only to find herself locked behind bars for begging, shortly after.
Suraiya's story is not unique. Her parents were practicing baad, the custom of trading young girls to settle debts or family disputes. Many young girls are physically and emotionally violated by those who receive them.
Like Suraiya, some girls manage to escape from such torture–only to find themselves on the street, homeless, vulnerable and at risk of being exploited further.
Homeless children in Afghanistan fend for themselves. They roam the streets, some indulging in petty theft, many ending up in juvenile rehabilitation centers. With no family or legal support to protect them, they often experience terrible violence, exploitation and abuse.
In these centers, social workers supported by UNICEF play a critical role. UNICEF is working with partners to help these children reunite with their parents when possible, through reintegration programs that include legal assistance and psycho-social counseling to overcome trauma. Once reintegrated with their families, these children stand a chance of leading a normal life, away from the abuse that they have faced. Social workers ensure the children's safety by directing them to orphanages or safe homes, contact the children’s families and provide regular counseling. After multiple sessions with families and children, social workers have often been successful in rebuilding the children’s confidence, and rebuilding families.
Suraiya moved among a juvenile rehabilitation center, a government-run shelter and an orphanage for four years. At the orphanage, she met a social worker. Trained and supported by UNICEF, the social worker counseled Suraiya for hours every day until she managed to locate the teenager's family.
Suraiya refused to return to her parents and now lives with her aunt, Rahila. Now 14, she shivers at the thought of the years she spent with the family while her parents turned a blind eye. Scars cover the girl's body, evidence of the atrocities she suffered.
But here with her loving aunt, she feels safe and protected and has started to pick up the pieces of her life.
UNICEF's Chief of Child Protection Micaela Pasini stresses the critical role of the social workers in reuniting children with their families: "UNICEF, together with the Government of Afghanistan and its implementing partners, has been working to create qualified professional workers specializing in the protection of vulnerable children. This is so that many more children like Suraiya can be reintegrated into their families and communities and live in a protected environment."
Since 2010, 500 children in juvenile rehabilitation centers and detained by the police across Afghanistan have been released from detention and have successfully been reintegrated into their communities. Most of them had been accused of committing minor offences. With the timely intervention of social support groups and social workers, these children are now back with their families.
But a lot more needs to be done. There are still more than 800 children in juvenile rehabilitation centers across Afghanistan, and, according to 2008 data, more than 12,000 children, orphaned or not, are living in orphanages.
UNICEF is supporting the Ministry of Interior Affairs and the national police in developing a framework in which children accused of minor offences are not put behind bars, but are instead counseled by the police, social workers and prosecutors and reunited with their families.