Asharq Al-Awsat- Reports issued by international and local Iraqi social organizations concerned with the welfare of children have confirmed that the poor living conditions endured by Iraqi families have caused thousands of children to leave the education system and enter employment that may be unsuitable to their ages and stature, or at best, have forced children to work during after school hours.
Considering that it is difficult to obtain any official statistics on the number of those who are not attending school in a country where many sectors, including the education sector, are deteriorating, the level of street children is increasing on a daily basis. Many children have taken up employment as cleaners, or sell newspapers and magazines on the street or helpers in vehicle repair garages.
Saad Raad, a 13-year-old Iraqi works at a motor repair centre close to his house in one of Baghdad’s districts after school. He earns roughly 10,000 Iraqi Dinars per day [US $7] in addition to tips. He saves most of his money to pay for school requirements for himself and his five brothers and contributes the rest of his pay towards household expenses.
Saad described a typical day in his life to Asharq Al-Awsat: “I wake up at 7am to go to school. After school I return home, change my clothes, have lunch with my brothers and then I go to work at the motor repair garage until 6pm when it closes. During school term, I spend approximately six hours per day at work but on Fridays and during school holidays I work 11 hours per day. This is also the case during the summer holiday that lasts for over three months.” Saad continued: “I have been working in the same job for four years and I have only taken time off when I have been ill or in emergency situations. Sometimes I hurt my head or my hands when I have to get underneath the car to fix it but I see to these wounds straight away myself and get back to work because this is the nature of the job and I cannot allow these wounds to hinder my work.”
Saad is thin and his eyesight is poor; this however, does not prevent him from carrying out his duties. As other children played nearby, Saad spoke to Asharq Al Awsat about his life during a break at work. “I hardly have time to play with my friends and brothers. After returning home from work, I complete my homework with the help of my parents. Sometimes I fall asleep whilst I go over my homework and I won’t wake up until the next morning. As a result, my mum tells me to quit my job but I refuse to do so since the money that I earn helps my family a lot. I have also become accustomed to working and I have made friends with many of the customers who frequently ask the owner of the garage about me when I am not there. They give me tips in return for the services that I provide.”
Asked about his favourite hobbies, Saad replied “I like to play football, to watch cartoons and to ride my bicycle which is broken at the moment. However, I don’t have time to take part in these activities.”
Saad lives with his family in a modest house in the region of Al Wazariyah. The house is rented by his father who worked as a guard in a foreign embassy a few years ago. His school is situated a few meters away from his house. His colleagues and his teachers frequently see him working in the garage as they pass by: “My friends at school often pass by the workshop and say hello. Sometimes they would come with their fathers who need their cars to be fixed. A number of female teachers also bring their vehicles to the garage every week for maintenance and see me working here. Some of them ask me to quit my job whilst others praise me and tell my boss to look after me well.”
The owner of the garage, Karim, praised Saad for his efforts saying, “Sometimes he works harder than his body allows him to and he is respected and appreciated by customers who always give him good tips that sometimes exceed his salary.” Karim added, “Saad always works hard even on official holidays. He is different to other children. He comes to the garage before me and I find him waiting for me in the morning. He deals with customers brilliantly and everyone thinks that he is our brother and I tell them that he is so that he does not feel like he is an outsider or just a worker.” Karim explained that he relies on Saad to carry out many duties with regards to the maintenance of vehicle engines and changing oil and tires and other tasks.
Like other Iraqis, Saad suffers from the dangerous security situation and the bombings and violent acts that occur close to his workplace. Karim stated, “Numerous bombings have taken place near our garage and every time I expect Saad’s family to come and take him home, but he contacts them and assures them that he is fine. He went to see the site of one explosion and when he returned he told me the details of the bombing according to a policeman. This act of violence had an impact on him and he was crying. When I asked him why he was crying he said that he saw the remnants of victims of the bombing and I never allowed him to visit any bomb scenes again.”
Saad related an assassination operation that he and his mother had witnessed. “I accompanied my mother to the hospital close to our house. As we were walking in the street, two cars stopped and a group of gunmen got out of the first car and opened fire on the second car in which there was only one man. Then they drove off. My mother screamed and I was in shock. I didn’t know what to do and I just shouted to the houses nearby for help to save the victim who was still alive.”
As for family life, aspirations for the future and what he hopes to achieve, Saad said, “I have a very good relationship with all my brothers. I hope to become an engineer or doctor. I am able to reconcile between my studies and work in order to help my family.”
Social workers argue that Iraqi children, aged between six and 17-years-old, often drop out of school in large numbers in order to look for work. They argue that the main cause of the high level of students quitting school is poverty and the poor living conditions of Iraqi families at present.
Social researcher Mahasen al Biyati said, “An entire generation was raised without the care of the family as a result of wars and conflicts. It has become worse in the 1990s and over the past four years; the suffering has intensified. Consequently, a generation that is psychologically unstable and malcontent with regards to everything emerged and became street children and they are fuel for the fire of militias and terrorist groups and easy prey to any subversive meaningless ideologies.”
Al Biyati continued, “The concerned institutions do not offer anything to children or families and the status quo is humiliating as dropout rates continue to rise. The absence of cultural and educational programs for children and disinterest in the potential talent within a large number of these children could lead to the continuation of this deprivation and suffering endured by a significant proportion of Iraqi children.”
Al Biyati highlighted that there are no government programs in place that aim to help end the suffering of Iraq’s children and that what is put forward in this regard by the concerned ministries and institutions does not meet the requirements. This in particular affects programs such as the Dar Thaqafa al Adfal [Children’s cultural centre]. On one hand there are Iraqi children from affluent families who have moved with their families to neighbouring countries where they continue their studies whilst on the other hand there are the children from poor and underprivileged backgrounds who are the victims of security issues and [poor] economic conditions.
However, Dr. Shafik al Mahdi, general director of the Dar Thaqafa al Adfal program stated that children in Iraq are being exploited in other ways: “Some Iraqi families lend their children to organized beggar groups to be sent out to various parts of Baghdad to beg for money.” In a telephone interview with Asharq Al-Awsat from his office in Baghdad, Al Mahdi said, “These gangs pay up to 1,000 Iraqi Dinars for a child from 8am to 2pm and up to 1,500 Iraqi Dinars until 5pm.”
Duha al Daee, the media representative at the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) agrees that that no official statistics relating to the children of Iraq exist as “all statistics are estimates”. According to al Mahdi, “The Iraqi Ministry of Planning or the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs have not issued any official statistics stating the number of children in Iraq or the number of children exploited in workplaces, or those sexually abused, or those who suffer from disabilities or even the number of children who have been killed as a result of the daily violence and poor security conditions in the country.”
From Amman, Al Daee told Asharq Al-Awsat, “It is estimated that Iraqi children, (those under 18 years of age) constitute half of the country’s population. We expect that the number of children who are being exposed to exploitation in Iraq – all kinds of exploitation including sexual abuse – is not small; rather it is a significant number without talking about specific figures since there is no official data available.”
Al Mahdi estimated the number of Iraq’s children at “15 million children, one third of which are orphans.”
Al Daee pointed out that “There are international laws and programs to protect children,” indicating that “UNICEF carries out its program in cooperation with the Iraqi Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs and civil organizations concerned with children.”
Al Daee highlighted that “There are Iraqi laws that protect children from exploitation and child labour. These laws stipulate that children can work at the age of 16 in good working conditions that would not endanger the child so not in motor repair garages and the like. These laws also take into consideration the children detained in Iraqi prisons.” She affirmed that “such laws exist all over the world, not only in Iraq, however they are not being applied.”
Dr Shafik al Mahdi described the laws related to the protection of Iraqi children as “inapplicable and ineffective particularly in Baghdad. As a result of the poor security and economic conditions, there are thousands of children sleeping in gardens and places of worship. There are also scores of children who are caught and employed by drug trafficking gangs to transport drugs between Baghdad and other Iraqi cities as the security bodies do not suspect children. In addition, thousands of children have left the education system to work in the fields of mechanics or carpentry or as blacksmiths in poor and dangerous working conditions in return for low wages.”
Al Daee affirmed that “Children are the first victims of war and poor security conditions because they are at risk of becoming orphans, and consequently, losing their source of living causing them to leave school to find work. Let us not forget the children who, along with their families left for the refugee camps where they are more vulnerable to exploitation in all its forms.”
While al Daee argued that Iraq’s government bodies are cooperating with the UNICEF program “through the participation of Iraqi ministries and even police forces in cultural programs and workshops that are organized by UNICEF,” Dr Shafik al Mahdi described UNICEF as far removed from the reality of Iraq since “it is based in Amman under the pretence of the dangerous security situation in Iraq whereas UNICEF should be working on the ground in the same place where Iraqi children are enduring hardship. At Dar Thaqafa al Adfal, which is a real national program, the employees are not influenced by political changes. Since the project was established in the early 1990s, we have carried out practical programs amid death threats and threats of being kidnapped. We have lost workers whilst putting on shows for children but we have not stepped down from our mission to implement our educational programs because of the security situation.”
With reference to the sincerity of the government in dealing with the plight of Iraq’s children, al Mahdi said “It has good intentions…I cannot say more than that.” He called for establishing a ministry to protect Iraq’s children and to alter the [educational] curriculum. “There is a national supreme authority for the protection of children that consists of the ministries of culture, interior, health, labour and social affairs, foreign affairs and justice. This authority has drafted and submitted a general children’s law to the Iraqi council of representatives (parliament).”
Al Daee warned that “The problem is serious as it needs all forces to join together in order to be solved, which under the present conditions may be harder than we thought.” Meanwhile, Dr Shafik al Mahdi called for “a real campaign to protect children [to be launched] as long as those taking part are fair and faithful to the project and competent.”
Al Mahdi acknowledged that “The Iraqi police have stormed a number of workplaces where child labour is taking place but the number is small and they have not led to practical results.” He called for real support for children and their families by way of offering payments through a social security network, indicating that the “government, in its budget, has not allocated a certain amount in support of Iraq’s children.”