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A short walk from Peshawar's fabled Storyteller's Bazaar I make my way down a cluttered side street and discover the children who have brought me back to Pakistan.

Dozens of grimy truck and automobile garages are teeming with youth hammering, welding, and sorting through mounds of recycled engine parts. They're all business: The kids acknowledge my presence with a wave or a smile, but don't let up their efforts. Their bosses unhesitatingly invite me to tour the work sites, and I find even younger kids deep inside repairing leaking radiators and fixing air conditioning equipment.

Nobody wears gloves or eye protection equipment. The smallest child in one garage is eight or nine years old -- he's not sure -- and he lives with friends, not his parents. I look on as the boy tightly grips a glass of tea in an effort to warm his grease-covered hands.

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Working children constitute the core of this frontier city's booming transport sector. Their meager wages supplement their parents' income; few go to school. Many are Afghan refugees, representatives of the estimated one million people displaced by 20 years of war, now living in camps bordering Peshawar. Pakistan has done its best to accommodate new arrivals (imagine the uproar in Canada if over two million refugees washed up on our shores). But they impose a heavy burden on a country struggling to allocate sufficient resources for its own population.

Some of these children have lost fathers or older brothers in the conflict, and have been forced to prematurely take on adult responsibilities, including earning an income. With the recent introduction of UN sanctions against the Taliban authorities in Kabul, there has been a new influx of Afghan refugees into North West Frontier Province, including Peshawar.

I am a child activist, and I believe that all children have the right to be protected from exploitation and abuse. I travelled to Pakistan and Afghanistan on behalf of an Amsterdam-based organization, HealthNet International, to investigate the possibility of launching an ambitious health program for girls and boys who work in various trades, including scavenging, leather tanning, and furniture making. The proposed health initiative is long overdue, and the officials I met (most of whom were well-informed about the extent of the phenomenon of child labour, and the related issues) want it to get under way as quickly as possible.

The idea is to employ local community health workers for an outreach-style program. In the spirit of Norman Bethune taking medicine to the battlefield, these women would gain entrance to the workshops and factories, and provide basic health care for the kids, many of whom are girls. The ailments that the children commonly suffer from include skin infections, parasites, infected wounds, and poor nutrition -- all of which can be treated without elaborate equipment, or the involvement of a physician.

The working children I met in Peshawar told me that they had no access to health services. They lack the documentation required to gain access to clinics and hospitals, and the money to pay for expensive medicines. In addition, most work full-time, and cannot afford to wait for hours in lines at crowded health facilities.

Their knowledge of health and safety matters is rudimentary: Boys employed in garages routinely use motor oil to clean their bleeding wounds. In January, an eight-year-old resident of Peshawar named Kumar broke into a truck, bringing a hibachi-style stove on board to fight off the cold. Kumar rolled up the windows and went to sleep. His friends found him the following morning, dead from carbon monoxide poisoning.

In the Afghan village of Torkam at the entrance of the Khyber Pass, the ancient route through the rugged mountains bordering Afghanistan and Pakistan, a sign at the customs station brags that the pass "has seen hordes of invaders, preachers, teachers and traders since recorded history." Aid workers note that the most frequent crossings these days are made by young girls and boys involved in particularly gruelling work. Used motor vehicles are purchased by traders in Dubai (although many originate from Japan), transported into Afghanistan, then disassembled in Torkham and smuggled by young Afghan children across the border into Pakistan.

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Save The Children Sweden, which carried out a study of the Torkham children in 1997, reports that more than 800 labourers, most between the ages of eight and 12, are regularly involved in the elaborate operation. On average, children cross the border eight times each day, carrying between five and 25 kilograms of automobile, motorbike and truck parts per load.

In the West, we see child labour as the curse of developing economies, and we pass laws to punish multinational corporations that employ underage workers. But the realities of working children are far more complex than most outsiders realize, and our ignorance can get in the way of pragmatic solutions. Clearly there are many children who should not be working -- they are too young or the work is dangerous. However, among the young people I interviewed in preparation for the health outreach program were adolescents who insisted that the education system in Pakistan is so antiquated that they would only waste their time sitting in a classroom. Learning a trade was their only hope -- a kind of apprenticeship. They showed me around their workshops with great pride, and hugged their bosses like kids surrounding a favourite hockey coach.

In a Save The Children Sweden study in the Mazar-i-Sharif region of Afghanistan, 61 per cent of working children interviewed liked the work they were doing, and 45 per cent of parents thought their child's work was beneficial in developing skills that would secure the child's future. Until the schools changed their curriculum to teach practical skills leading to employment, there was a consensus that children were better off learning on the job.

Some kids I spoke with questioned the right of foreign experts to intervene at all. As one 12-year-old Peshawar boy put the issue squarely to me, "You go back to Canada next week. I stay here in Pakistan. I have the right to work, and to decide my future."

An improved schooling system for all of Pakistan's children remains an elusive goal. Spending levels on education remain among the world's lowest: According to Unicef, education accounted for only 2 per cent of total central-government expenditures between 1992 and 1998. Many working children in Pakistan were at some point enrolled in schools, but abandoned their education when teachers showed little interest in them. Working children often report that they were beaten in schools, and ridiculed and humiliated by their teachers.

In response, Save The Children and the International Labour Organization have developed informal education and skill-development centres with the practical needs of working children in mind. Ideally, employers excuse children from work early each day, allowing them to attend classes without forfeiting income.

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More than anything else, working children want to be accepted as full citizens, to have access to sports and recreation, and to enjoy companionship. Aziz, a 13-year-old Afghan metal worker speaks for many working children when he states: "I cannot remember any good memories. I would like to have a special friend, but I don't have any because poor children do not have friends." The young people I came to know in the workshops of Peshawar had fire in their eyes, and demonstrated extraordinary resilience. They deserve a place in their nation's future. Peter Dalglish, a lawyer and teacher, was founder of Street Kids International. He currently works in Amsterdam with HealthNet International designing projects for child labourers in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and war-affected children in Sudan and Sierra Leone.

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