The Kabul-based Mobile Mini-Circus for Children (MMCC) was founded in Afghanistan in 2002, months after the fall of the hardline Taliban Islamic regime which banned music and dance.
Fewer than one million children - and no girls - attended school nationwide at the time.
While other NGOs and government agencies focused on food, shelter and education, MMCC (www.afghanmmcc.org) strove to introduce "soft" values bringing children together to foster a more joyful atmosphere despite frequent hardship.
"It's a special circus," said founder David Mason, a former salsa and tango dance instructor from Denmark.
"It's a circus to educate, give meaning to life, make children happy, make them dream and realise their dreams and gain self-confidence and inspiration."
Professional adult artists tour and perform for children across the war-torn country.
In the past 11 years, the circus and its local partner the Afghan Educational Children's Circus have attracted a total live audience of more than 2.7 million people in 25 provinces.
At a show in Kabul on Sunday to mark World Circus Day, young performers in colourful cloaks circled a courtyard on rollerskates and headscarved girls showed off their juggling skills.
Children performed cartwheels and backward somersaults and formed human pyramids, dancing and clapping to entertain an audience of their peers from a camp for internally displaced people and an orphanage.
Conditions in the camps housing the country's half a million internal refugees are notoriously harsh. In the winter of 2011-2012 about 100 people, mostly children and the elderly, lost their lives in the cold.
"When you are living under a plastic sheet in a Kabul winter, then... hardship and surviving makes people forget about living. And then once you have survived, there's nothing much to live for," said Mason, 47.
The circus works to change that.
Afghan children from MMCC take part in a performance on child labour to honour "World Day Against Child Labour" at the French Culture Centre in Kabul. AFP
A total of 120 girls and boys attend a centre in Kabul after regular school hours to learn circus skills, going on to give performances in schools and refugee camps.
"They are semi-professionals," said Mason, co-director of the non-profit body with his partner Berit Muhlhausen. MMCC also draws on support from almost 100 international professionals and volunteers.
Afghan children watch the MMCC perform on "World Circus Day". AFP
Enjoyment is the main message but the circus also stages hour-long educational performances starting with a Koran recital. They include messages lasting for 10-15 minutes on the importance of hygiene, school attendance, mine awareness and malaria prevention.
Children "never forget the messages because the music is there, the story is there, compared with traditional messages," Mason said.
But the overriding message is to be happy. "It's difficult to convince academics and people in power that having a reason to be joyful is a huge achievement, an aim in itself," he said.
Mason said he has "very good relations" with the education and culture ministries, and deputy culture minister Nabi Farahi watched Sunday's show.
He told AFP that attention to children's art and talents "is really important in society. We can see that young Afghan people have a lot of talent".
Firouz, an 11-year-old who lives in a camp for internal refugees, also enjoyed the show. "This programme is fun," he said. "I'd like to learn how to juggle and do gymnastics. It's really good."
Every year the circus brings together children from across Afghanistan for major events such as festivals and children's assemblies. This, says MMCC, promotes unity in a multi-ethnic country.
The MMCC holds entertainment programmes in the Afghan capital and other big cities. AFP
The circus, which has also performed overseas, says 75% of all its activities are run and taught by children at a time when Afghanistan is taking control of its own future as the international community steps back.
"Over the past decade, the children and youngsters at (the circus) have developed the capacity to lead young people across Afghanistan," it says on its website.
"Their voices are the voices of Afghanistan's future."