Iraq’s children, a generation deprived of education

Sunday 31/07/2016
Hamzawi is among more than 500,000 Iraqi children working to support their impoverished families, which have been hit by violence, displacement and economic crises.

Baghdad - Eight-year-old Hamzawi had a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eyes, unaffected by the effort he was making to remove tyres at the car repair workshop in Baghdad’s industrial neighbour­hood. Hamzawi’s father was disa­bled after an explosion last year and the boy has been working since to help support his family of six.
“I didn’t have a choice after my father’s accident. Work was the only option. I tried several jobs before and I finally opted to work in car re­pair,” he said.
Hamzawi considers himself lucky to have a job. He gets a daily wage of 10,000 dinars ($8) for more than eight hours of work a day. “I can­not deny that I would like to be at a school, learning like other children,” he said, “but I am not the only one working. Many of my friends live in the same difficult conditions or worse.”
Next to Hamzawi’s workshop is a blacksmith shop where Moham­ad Mortada, 10, is an apprentice. The death of his father in a terror­ist attack forced him to drop out of school to earn a living.
He said: “I had only two options either lose my family or enter the labour market. I believe that in my case conditions could not be better, most of my relatives are begging on the streets or doing tough jobs that I cannot.”
The scope of child labour in Iraq is obvious in many places includ­ing garages, factories, garbage col­lection centres and waste dumps. The UN children’s agency, UNICEF, has sounded an alarm about the un­precedented number — estimated at more than 575,000 — of children working in Iraq. The phenomenon is largely due to violence and dis­placement that affected the income of millions of families.
According to UNICEF, the number of working children has doubled since 1990, the year when Iraq at­tacked Kuwait, leading to war with the United States and its allies and sanctions. Then came US-led inva­sion of 2003 and the sectarian strife that continues to this day.
Since the beginning of 2014, al­most 10% of Iraqi children — more than 1.5 million — have been forced to flee their homes because of vio­lence. Nearly one-in-five schools is closed due to conflict and almost 3.5 million children of school age are missing out on an education, UNICEF said.
Iraqi labour law prohibits employ­ment of children under 15 but Mor­tada’s employer, Mohamad Haddad, said he believes he is doing the right thing. “I don’t think I am violating the law by helping a child not to de­viate to the wrong path. I am trying hard to teach him the profession so that he can support himself and avoid being abused by wrongdoers,” Haddad argued.
Bushra al-Obeidi, an Iraqi mem­ber of the High Commission for Human Rights, stressed the “dan­gerous” situation of Iraqi children, arguing that the number of work­ing minors is much bigger than UNICEF’s estimate.
“We have raised the issue in sev­eral reports submitted to the Iraqi government pinpointing the fla­grant violations committed against children in this country but un­fortunately all red lines have been crossed in Iraq and scores of chil­dren have become the breadwin­ners of their families and many were driven to commit criminal acts or are sexually abused,” Obeidi said.
Article 29 of the Iraqi law bans the economic exploitation of children and imposes huge fines on viola­tors but the law is not enforced. “Despite our calls to implement the law, the government’s response has been more than poor. We even tried to present a draft law for the protec­tion of children in 2013 without suc­cess,” Obeidi noted.
According to UNICEF, at least 3.6 million children in Iraq are at risk of death, serious injury, sexual vio­lence, abduction and recruitment into armed groups, an increase of 1.3 million since 2014.
Member of Parliament Ashwaq al- Jaf acknowledged authorities’ fail­ure to ensure the minimum rights of Iraqi children for education and health care amid rampant insecu­rity and political uncertainties that have left economic activities stunt­ed and social safety nets disrupted, while unemployment and poverty have deepened.
“Families and children have been the main victims of acute economic and security deteriora­tion that plagued the country in the past six years,” Jaf said. “We have tried many times to push for a law to grant widows soft loans, but we were cut short by political differ­ences.”
Abir al-Jalabi, director of child­care at the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, said the ministry will be allocating monthly family allow­ances ranging $90-$300 to allevi­ate poverty, the main factor behind child labour.
“The ministry has also intercept­ed several cases of abuse whereby children were paid very little for doing tough and hazardous work. Consequently, many factories were closed down and their owners fined,” Jalabi added.