Iraq’s children, a generation deprived of education
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.