BAGHDAD — Iraq’s children have suffered more than just successive wars and economic sanctions. The loss of parents and family resources has boosted child labor, homelessness and inclinations toward violence and rebellion.
They often now live in homes where 25 people share a space of 40 sq. meters. Even intact families may comprise parents and five children occupying a solitary six-meter room.
The increase in child labor reflects families’ dire economic situation: Children are frequently a family’s only breadwinners, and they work cheap. Contractors in municipal services, for example, prefer to use children in order to cut costs. Here, a child may be used for agricultural labor or for janitorial work. Many work in piles of garbage, either removing them to another place or collecting empty bottles and cans to sell.
Other children load and transport items in the markets, where they must pull carts weighing 60-70 kg and carry boxes weighing 15 kg in temperatures as hot as 50 degrees. Two children may unload trucks carrying 1,000 kg of food items.
Not surprisingly, Iraq’s child workers suffer from serious health problems. Children who work in the garbage dumps are prone to skin and respiratory problems, while those who work with paints eventually become addicted to the intoxicants that they inhale. And working children are vulnerable to malnutrition, as their diets often lack the nutrients necessary to build body tissue.
Nor is there any official authority to protect children and defend their rights in case of incapacitation or sickness. On the contrary, children are often beaten by family members if they do not provide the daily wage expected of them, or by their bosses when they are inattentive or make a mistake.
Indeed, Iraqi children are exposed to beating without regard for their age and for myriad reasons, thus growing up insecure, hostile, and violent. Moreover, they are prone to being kidnapped by criminal gangs, trained to steal or pickpocket, or, worse, placed at the mercy of terrorists for use in attacks.
The deterioration of families’ finances have also left poor children deprived of an education. For many children, even when they do attend school, the collapse of infrastructure, the unavailability of electricity and water, and high temperatures in the summer are hardly conducive to successful study.
The small number of schools, the poor condition of buildings, and the collapse of relationships between students and teachers is also at fault. Older children sit in classrooms with much younger children, growing frustrated and violent, rather than becoming role models for others to emulate.
Iraqi girls suffer no less than boys — and often more. When a family’s income is insufficient to pay school fees for every child, girls are typically denied an education, owing to the traditional belief that marriage is a girl’s final destiny. They must perform household chores and are subject to beating if they do not carry out orders issued by male family members. In poor households, they are also likely to receive less food than boys, placing their physical health and development at even greater risk.
Rape, adultery, early child bearing and abortion have become ordinary matters. Increasingly, Iraqi girls interpret anything given to them as a means to have sex with them.
Orphans, whose number has increased sharply over the past quarter-century as a result of wars, economic sanctions, and terrorism, are especially vulnerable to the cruelest type of physical and psychological violence. Having lost their homes and parents, they sleep in alleys, sell cigarettes or newspapers, and beg. Grandparents are often unable or unwilling to care for them, and the pathological education given to them by criminal gangs often puts them beyond the reach of any institution’s ability to rehabilitate them.
Simply put, children in Iraq have been reduced from human beings worthy of care to tools of production and instruments of violence. We are quite literally breeding a new generation of disorder.
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