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In Afghanistan, drug rehab for children

Children in Afghanistan are often fed opium to stop their crying, and many are born to addicts. A few clinics offer drug rehab for youths, but they are scarce and socially taboo.

By Aunohita MojumdarCorrespondent / July 14, 2010

Children attend a Koran class at Sanga Amaj, a clinic tending to Afghan women and children addicted to opiates, in Kabul June 15. The clinic is one of three set up with US funding to treat the most vulnerable of Afghanistan's many drug users.

Omar Sobhani/Reuters


Kabul, Afghanistan

Najiba scrabbles through cupboards frantic for something sweet. She claws at her mother, urging her to help. Najiba, though only 13 years old, lives in the Sanga Amaj drug addiction rehab clinic in Kabul with her mother, Zainab – who is also an opium addict, a habit acquired from her husband and passed on to her daughter.

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“When she was born, she kept crying, so after two months or so I started giving her opium to keep her quiet,” says Zainab. (Her and Najiba’s names have been changed to protect their privacy.)

The result is a drug dependency that Najiba is now desperately fighting.

Yet she is neither alone among Afghan children addicted to opium, nor among the worst affected. For starters, she’s one of a small minority getting professional help.

Opium as a pacifier

Opium is used in parts of Afghanistan to quiet babies and, in poorer households without access to medical help, to relieve pain – trends exacerbated by decades of conflict. Economic pressures and fragmented families have meant that women have less help at home and are more likely to give opium to cranky children, to free themselves up to do housework.

“Opium is sometimes used as a child-rearing method,” says Preeti Shah, a Narcotics Affairs Officer of the US Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) in Kabul.

The conflict has also left people with deep physical psychological wounds, which they try to numb with narcotics.

A two-year pilot study by the INL on drug addiction and household toxicity in Afghanistan found that babies as young as nine months were testing positive for narcotics, says Thom Browne, deputy director of the INL’s anticrime programs. It also found that in many cases, the level of toxicity in young children was several times higher than that in adult heroin users. The study, which looked at 30 households in three provinces, will be expanded to cover 2,000 households in 22 provinces next year.

While other countries also face cases of babies born with addiction, in Afghanistan the problem deepens as parents continue to administer drugs to their children. According to a recent report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), up to half of drug users surveyed gave their children opium. The INL found in their study of Afghan drug users’ homes significant samples of opium in the air, bedding, eating utensils, toys, and other items that children come into contact with.