By Sarah Shenker
President-for-life Saparmurat Niyazov last month announced his intention to ban child labour in Turkmenistan.
Thousands of children are used as seasonal labour in Central Asia. Photograph: Thomas Grabka
The move was broadly welcomed by aid agencies and human rights groups, who have been pressing for action since the country gained independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991.
But there are concerns that the practice is so central to the country's economy that a ban will not be enough.
"Any official announcement is only as good as the implementation," said Acacia Shields, a researcher with Human Rights Watch.
"Mr Niyazov is prone to making arbitrary announcements... We need more time to see if this is going to be carried up on the ground," she said.
As Unicef published a report calling child labour a scar on the world's conscience, aid agencies and analysts said they were increasingly concerned about the extent of the problem in Central Asia.
According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), child labour is a concern in all five Central Asian states - Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
In Turkmenistan alone, US State Department figures estimated that more than one million children were part of the labour force in 2000.
Enter any city bazaar in Central Asia, according to the ILO's Klaus Guenther, and you find the most visible sign of child labour - large numbers of school-age boys working as porters.
WHO HAS SIGNED ILO CONVENTIONS
Kazakhstan: ILO conventions 138 and 182
Kyrgyzstan: ILO conventions 138 and 182
Tajikistan: ILO Convention 138
Young girls from the countryside are also sent to the city to work as domestic helpers.
The money they earn is a lifeline for their families.
From September to December, many rural schools are closed by local officials so that tens of thousands of young children in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan can be sent into the cotton fields to bring in the harvest.
In October last year, a minister with Uzbekistan's public education department admitted that at least 44,000 senior pupils and students had been mobilised to help pick the country's cotton.
Local rights activists say the figure does not take into account the number of young children forced into the fields - they say they have seen children as young as seven working there.
"If you go to the cotton fields, the only people working are women and children," said regional analyst Michael Hall from the International Crisis Group.
Children from the ages of 10 upwards help adults to pick cotton by hand for between two and five US cents a kilogramme. A small child might be able to pick 30kg a day.
Often, employers deduct food and housing costs from what they earn, leaving them with very little. A BBC reporter who visited an Uzbek cotton field met a 12-year-old boy who said he was paid in kindling.
The three countries' economies are agrarian and rely heavily on the cotton industry.
Some schools are emptied for months on end
Uzbekistan's exports last year were thought to be worth at least $1bn - it is the country's most important cash crop, known as "white gold". In some parts of the country, cotton is a virtual monoculture.
Most governments in the region have signed at least one of the ILO's two conventions banning the use of child labour. Uzbekistan has not, but has legislation banning children under 15 from working.
All three governments deny accusations that children are forced into work, saying it is the parents from rural communities who send their children into the fields to earn much-needed cash.
A spokesman for the Uzbek embassy in Britain said: "There is no child labour in Uzbekistan."
But less guarded officials will say they empty out local schools because they lack machinery and have no viable alternative to bring in the harvest.
"We are concerned," said Andro Shilakadze, Unicef's programme co-ordinator in Uzbekistan.
"We need to do more advocacy work, we need to do more with families and communities to make them understand the negative consequences," he says.
Momentum for change
Mr Hall said there was no single cause of the problem, and no easy solution.
The pace of economic reform in some parts of Central Asia has been painfully slow, and living standards are among the lowest in the former Soviet Union.
Some families rely on seasonal work, taking their children with them wherever there is a living to be had.
Cotton producers are under intense pressure to meet quotas. Photograph: Thomas Grabka
"Very often, the children come from poor rural areas where there are no opportunities to earn cash, so the children are taken out of schools to work for money," he said.
Young teenagers working as manual labour in cities may be their family's only means of support, he added.
He also believes the pressure to meet production quotas is partly to blame and that land reforms are overdue.
"Each region has state quotas on cotton that come from above. As long as these are in place, and as long as local, appointed administrators feel their survival depends on meeting them, this will continue," Mr Hall says.
The ICG is trying to get support from the international community put pressure on governments to abide by the ILO conventions and implement the law.
It also wants to raise awareness among consumers that the cotton picked by forced child labour is winding up on clothing racks in the west.
Besides the severe implications for children's education, Mr Hall said the use of forced labour has long-term consequences for political and economic stability in the region.
"This is part of a bigger picture, where rural communities are being pushed to the brink," he says, through lack of opportunities for work for a fair wage.