Iraq’s children main victims of decades of sanctions and wars
BAGHDAD - “We have no money for studying. My father is paralysed and my mother is unable to work,” says 12-year-old Shams Ali, who, along with her two younger brothers, sells chewing gum and tissue paper in the streets of Mosul in northern Iraq to help her family survive.
Life has been very harsh for Shams and her siblings since their father was wounded in an explosion while they were fleeing the old part of Mosul at the height of the war to dislodge militants of the Islamic State (ISIS) last year. “The family relies on us to bring some food to the table. There is no time for studying,” she said in a distressed tone in a phone conversation arranged by social activists.
Shams’ plight is like that of hundreds of thousands of war-affected Iraqi children, especially in areas that were previously held by ISIS such as Mosul, Nineveh and Anbar.
Mustafa Khatib, a social activist in Mosul, described the children’s conditions as “desolate and miserable.” “They are the biggest victims of the vast destruction that swept Iraq. Many families have refrained from sending their children to school due to harsh living conditions and abject poverty. They can’t even afford the minimum cost of education, which is basically free,” Khatib said.
Khatib described the work of the government and humanitarian organisations in Mosul as “unorganised and confusing.”
“They are operating without any strategy or any carefully designed plans, a matter that reflected adversely on education, health care and other basic services for children,” he said. “The well-being and future of Iraqi children should be at the top of the government’s priorities as well as that of aid organisations.”
The United Nations says about half of the 2.6 million people displaced in Iraq after the 3-year war with ISIS are children, 5 million children out of a total child population of 20 million need humanitarian assistance, 3 million do not attend school on a regular basis and 1.2 million children are out of school.
At least one-in-four Iraqi children is affected by conflict and poverty, and 50% of the schools in Iraq need urgent repair.
Khalaf al-Hadidi, a provincial council member in Nineveh, pointed out the enormous problems facing the region, saying: “The province has been suffering for years from negligence, lack of construction and development, lack of intellectual and educational progress and poor human rights. ISIS occupation and the battle to extricate it further aggravated the situation in addition to causing unparalleled destruction.”
“Violence and displacement have deprived scores of children from education and normal life,” Hadidi said, noting that there are more than 5,000 orphans and 5,000 widows in Mosul who have lost their home and provider, in addition to approximately 6,000 children without schooling in the refugee camps of Hammam al-Alil 1 and Hammam al-Alil 2.
“These are big frightening numbers. We’ve tried hard with the Ministry of Education and international aid groups to secure some kind of education for them to no avail,” he added.
Hadidi urged the central government to give special attention to Iraqi children deprived of education and basic conditions for leading a relatively normal childhood. He warned that, “unless it acts quickly to save these children and their families, Iraq will have an illiterate future generation.”
Iraqi children have been the victims of the country’s dire political situation since before the US-led invasion in 2003. The negative effects on children started with harsh UN sanctions against the regime of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and were aggravated by subsequent wars and sectarian violence, whose consequences were most detrimental on children.
A high number of children suffer mental health problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder, which can have devastating effects on the brain and physical and mental development.
UNICEF previously warned that children in Iraq were exposed to heavy metals and neurotoxins released in bomb explosions and other ammunition because the weapons affect not only those targeted but all those living nearby. In addition, contamination from depleted uranium and other military-related pollution is believed to be the cause of an increase in congenital birth defects and cancer.
The water and sanitation infrastructure, damaged by bombings and not yet repaired has led to a weakened health-care system that puts children’s survival in jeopardy. UN counts show that from January 2014-May 2017, 1,075 children were killed and 1,130 were maimed or injured. In addition, 231 children were recruited into the fighting.
Despite laws against child labour, large numbers of children are compelled to work to be able meet their basic needs and to help their families.