06/14/2008, 00.00
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Child-slaves: no school, only work "in order to buy bread"

Child labour is still widespread in Central Asia, despite international bans. Children are already marked by it at the age of seven, harvesting cotton or working in bazaars or as housekeepers. Out of poverty, but also because they are forced by the state.

Astana (AsiaNews/Agencies) - In Central Asia, hundreds of thousands of children, even as young as seven, leave school for gruelling and poorly paid jobs, in the cities and in the countryside.  Often they need to earn money for their families, but in countries like Uzbekistan they are forced by the state.

Children as young as seven are easy to find in the bazaars, intent on selling something.  Others work there as porters, and the girls offer themselves as maids.  The main reason is poverty.

Safar, aged 13, in Dushanbe (Tajikistan), explains to Radio Free Europe that "I am proud that I work and get paid; I bring bread [to my family]". "I wish I could go to school together with my classmates, but life is hard and I have to work".

In Tajikistan, more than half the population is below the poverty level, and Firuz Saidov, a state expert on child labour, admits that "Children work in trade, agriculture, and in the street - they wash cars. It's hard to stop this in Tajikistan".  They are exploited by their employers, and no one protects them.

But in Uzbekistan, it is the government that every year, in September, closes the schools and sends thousands of children to harvest cotton.  In exchange, they are given lodging, meagre meals, and a small salary, and are sometimes monitored by the police. Tashkent earns about 1 billion dollars a year from the export of cotton, but in November of 2007 an international campaign convinced many of the large clothing companies - including Tesco, Marks & Spencer, Gap, and H&M - to stop buying this cotton.  Under international pressure, in January the Uzbek government approved a law for the "safeguarding of children's rights". But Nadezhda Atayeva, head of the non-governmental Association on Human Rights in Central Asia, is waiting for next autumn's harvest, and asking that international observers be allowed to monitor the situation.

According to the NGO Save the Children, at least 200,000 Tajik children are also forced to harvest cotton each year.  In Turkmenistan as well, children are widely used to harvest cotton, in spite of state laws prohibiting any work for children under the age of 16: in 2000, the U.S. state department reported that at least 1 million minors were affected, but it is difficult to obtain more recent data.

Even in the more "rich" Kazakhstan, minors harvest cotton and tobacco, or follow their migrant parents from Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan and assist them in their work.

Dana Zhandayeva, an expert in the sector, tells RFE that at least Kazak authorities "admit that the phenomenon exists", although they refer above all to the migrant children from nearby countries.

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