Beyond their years… How Afghanistan’s youth are filling the social welfare void

Sep 22, 2017 · 6 min read

September 22, 2017 | Rahila Muhibi

Today, more than 42% of the population live below the poverty line in Afghanistan. With the social welfare system being an unfamiliar phenomenon, some Afghan families depend on informal social groups and the traditional family structure to get by.

In some cases, groups of people from the same neighborhood come together to form community unions (itehadiyas), community councils (shūrās) and tribal assemblies (jirgas). With monthly contributions from members and limited resources, they tend to support mostly the burial and funeral ceremonies.

Young and old helping around their farm homes in Musa Qala, Afghanistan. | Photo Credit: Staff Sergeant Will Craig MOD/Crown

However, these communal support systems are not always sustainable and do not cover all the basic needs of its vulnerable population, like employment and education counselling for young people. Communal support systems are more common in neighborhoods where the population is linked by ethnicity, tribe or place of origin — but are not prevalent across all communities particularly in large urban centers.

Even in the most tight-knit neighborhoods, there are still disagreements over leadership, conflicts of ideologies amongst members, and an inability to afford membership fees in community organisations.

Following International Youth Day, last month, iguacu’s Lead Researcher for Afghanistan, Rahila Muhibi, interviewed a number of young Afghans to honor and recognize the role of youth in alleviating poverty in Afghanistan.


“I have both direct and indirect beneficiaries and they include my siblings, nephews and nieces.” — Farrukh Hadi, 32 year old public servant

In a typical Afghan family, parents are not the only providers. There are always one or more members of the family, sons or daughters, who inevitably end up acting as the shadow parents. In some cases children become the sole providers, taking complete responsibility for the household when their parents are unable to do so. Abdullah Iqbal, a 26-year-old telecommunications professional interviewed for this piece, currently supports 13 family members alongside his brother and father.

One way of viewing these young people would be as the ‘compassionate guardians’ in the family and in fact, the lifesaver and pillar of an unofficial welfare and pension system.

The role of these ‘compassionate guardians’ extends beyond the financial assistance. They mentor and advise their younger siblings, and bridge the generational gap between their parents and younger children. In some cases, that could mean saving girls from the harmful traditional practices (such as child marriage), and preventing their younger brothers from being exploited in labor markets.

Young Afghan kids in Southern Afghanistan. | Photo Credit: Senior Airman Kenny Holston

These responsibilities extend beyond the borders of Afghanistan. Nemat Zamani, told iguacu that even though he lives in the UK, his responsibilities towards his family have increased. Supporting both his siblings in the UK and those in Afghanistan.


With the lack of adequate government services, family members play a pivotal role in providing economic and social security for one another. In Afghanistan’s patriarchal society, tradition places a greater responsibility on the eldest child (generally sons) to care for the parents and the younger siblings. However, that attitude is slowly changing, and willing and able children, of all ages, take responsibility in assisting the family.

I am the eldest son in my family and when I grew up the tradition was that the eldest should support the father. My father could not do it alone and the rest of my siblings were young… Since the age of 15, I felt that I should support them financially and care for them emotionally.” — Nagib Haidari

As an eldest son, it is assumed it’s Nemat’s responsibility to support 9 members of his family. He outlined the reasons why young Afghans take on these roles. “I grew up in a society where the norms assign roles and responsibility for you. You grow up thinking it is your responsibility to do that. My parents also always told me that as the eldest son, I had many responsibilities… You watch your family struggling, and know that they could go a long way with your help and support. All of a sudden that responsibility is reinforced.”

Villagers from Kapisa province, Afghanistan. | Photo Credit: Lt.Cmdr. John Gay

Abdullah and Farrukh, are not the eldest sons in their families, but felt the need to step up and give a supporting shoulder to their parents and help the younger members of their family to navigate through Afghan society — a society now much different to the one their parents knew.

Farrukh told iguacu, “despite my family coming from a relatively well to do background, we are from a marginalized province. There were times we did not have enough food and led a very difficult life during the civil war — I do not want that experience to repeat itself. I feel the need to provide any kind of support to my family, and help them get where I want to be. I believe this will multiply and I hope this tradition will continue.

Abdullah was inspired by the lack of support he experienced when he was young and told iguacu, “when I was studying, I had no one to seek ‘technical’ advice from. By technical advice I mean advice on my choice of career and dealing with the nuances of society. This made me feel to take an active role to help my nine younger siblings.

The loss of a ‘compassionate guardian’ can have major repercussions. When Hossein Panahi was killed on 31st May 2017, in a bomb explosion in Kabul, his sister Razia not only lost a brother, but also a breadwinner and a stout supporter of her future ambitions.


While none of the participants regretted prioritizing the needs of their families over their own ambitions — in fact they felt honored for having an opportunity to make a difference — the responsibilities they take on, and the lack of organised formal social welfare system, has repressed their personal goals, and put pressure on the future of the rest of their family.

“If there was a central government that looked at issues fairly, a new social order would have replaced the pre-existing gerontocracy/gerontocratic system.” — Nemat

An Afghan man takes a moment to rest, Southern Afghanistan. | Photo Credit: Senior Airman Kenny Holston

The non-existence of pension and social security becomes the source of anxiety amongst some of the youth. “Of course, if some sort of social welfare and pension system was in place, I would have felt less worried about the future of my family” Abdullah told us.

Others, find it impossible to save and invest for the future: “I earn an above-average salary but still I cannot manage to save because there is not welfare system, insurance, or an affordable public transportation system.” — Farrukh

If members of Farrukh’s family had a secure future, he would have either immigrated to Canada or pursued his PhD.

In the face of the increasing violence, a lack of unemployment, reduced international aid, and a Government stretched beyond its means, the responsibilities placed on Afghanistan’s youth are only going to get bigger and bigger.

The unfortunate truth is that many Afghan children lack both working parents and ‘compassionate guardians’, and are resigned to a life on the streets. While there is an urgent need to address these challenges, we remember the young Afghans who have made helping their families their main purpose in life.

“On one hand I am concerned about my safety and security, and, on another hand, I gain an immense joy knowing that I can make a difference.” — Farrukh Hadi

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