Amid the roadside restaurants and bustling crowds in one of Kabul’s busiest markets, a 10-year-old girl is trying to sell plastic bags to shoppers squeezing past her. “If I don’t work, we will go hungry,” Shaista says. Shops in the Afghan capital are stacked with food, but her family cannot afford any of it.
Each morning, Shaista buys a few shopping bags for 5 afghani (4p) each, then goes to the market to sell them for double that. As the UN predicts that 97% of Afghans could be living below the poverty line by June, the number of child labourers and beggars has tripled in Kabul, aid workers say. Many are fighting just to survive.
Shaista is shivering in her thin plastic shoes. Temperatures have dropped below zero. The smells of freshly brewed green tea and warm bread from a nearby bakery linger in the air, but – unless someone donates a meal – Shaista will not be eating until dinner. Hundreds of children – some of them as young as four – work alongside her in the big market. Others are begging, with their cold small hands stretched out as they wander through the busy crowds.
Afghanistan’s economic downfall has thrown its people into a hunger crisis. Almost 80% of the former government’s spending – including countless salaries – was foreign-funded. Aid made up 43% of Afghanistan’s GDP. When the Taliban took over the government in August, those development funds were quickly suspended.
More than $9bn (£6.6bn) of mostly private assets remain frozen in US accounts. The international community now engages carefully with the Islamic Emirate, as the Taliban regime is officially known, which is accused of killing dozens of former Afghan officials and banning women from public office.
Shaista, the oldest of four children, makes up to 50 afghani (40p) on a “good day”. The responsibility weighs on her. “Every day, my mother buys bread with the money I make.” Navigating the huge market all day is scary. “I’d like to go to school,” she says.
Child labour has long been common in Afghanistan. Before the Taliban takeover, Unicef estimated that 60,000 children worked on Kabul’s streets, but those numbers have tripled in recent months, says Street Child’s country representative, Hamidullah Abawi, “with hunger and malnutrition being the main cause”.
“Many have to acquire food for themselves and their families,” he says. “I have seen a significant change in the lives of Afghan children in recent months and it’s heartbreaking.”
On the outskirts of the city, Noor Agha, 10, is the oldest of eight children in his family – and the only one working. In his neighbourhood of mud-brick homes and unpaved roads, he sorts through rubbish, looking for pieces of plastic to use for heating the stove, and scrap metal to sell.
“I start when the sun rises and come home at night,” he says from his house – a room with a few mattresses stacked up in a corner and a stove used for cooking and heating. His mother has not been able to pay rent in months; the little money Noor makes goes on food.
Zahra Habibullah, Noor’s 51-year-old single mother, brought her children to Kabul two years ago; after their home in the northern Kunduz province was damaged in an airstrike, she says. “We were right on the frontline and Noor was injured by shrapnel. After we lost our house, I decided it would be safer to live in Kabul.”
But after the Taliban’s takeover, Zahra lost her job; her employer was struggling with his own finances and unable to keep staff.
While food aid trickles into Afghanistan – the UN has announced an appeal for $4.5bn (£3.3bn) – the sudden sanctions have brought an inevitable economic crash.
The cessation of development money, which paid the salaries of civil servants, doctors, teachers and labourers taking part in foreign-implemented cash-for-work schemes, has thrown millions into poverty.
The future looks bleak, says the Afghan economist Haroun Rahimi. “The honest answer is that there isn’t a lot the Taliban can do either if sanctions continue – no government could, even if they have perfect policies.
“Right now, they need money, as well as international recognition more than anything,” he says, adding that the scenario seems unlikely and that poverty could continue to rise.
By the side of a dirty Kabul road, Khadjia sits on a plastic bag in the snow, a few brushes and shoe polish in front of her. She is four, says her mother, who sits metres away, and asked to remain anonymous.
People rush past as the sun sets and temperatures fall. “We don’t have an alternative,” Khadjia’s mother says. “If we don’t make any money for food, we’ll go to bed hungry.”
Sign up for a different view with our Global Dispatch newsletter – a roundup of our top stories from around the world, recommended reads, and thoughts from our team on key development and human rights issues, delivered to your inbox every two weeks: