NEW YORK - Iraqi children have been the victims of the country’s dire political situation even before the start of the war led by the United States. The negative effects on children started with the harsh United Nations sanctions against the regime of Saddam Hussein and were considerably aggravated by the war, whose consequences are still felt.
Even now, hardly a week passes in Iraq without violence leaving both children and adults with permanent physical and mental scars. Experts such as Dr. Haithi al-Sady from the Psychological Research Center at Baghdad University have warned of the high number of children suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
PTSD can have devastating effects on children’s brains, negatively affecting their development. It can lead to a decrease in the area of the brain known as hippocampus, which is critical for memory processing and emotion. In addition, if not treated, PTSD can lead to a wide variety of mental health problems later in life.
Most Iraqi children with mental health problems will be untreated, since the number of child psychiatrists in the country is insufficient to deal with those who need assistance. Dr. Haidr al-Maliki, who was an army psychiatrist during Saddam’s regime, now works as a child psychiatrist at Ab Ibn Rushed Hospital in Baghdad. He is one of the very few remaining child psychiatrists in the country.
A UNICEF report, “Nowhere to Go,” details the effects of continuing violence on Iraqi children. According to this report, 5 million children out of a total child population of 20 million are in need of humanitarian assistance. One in five children has stunted growth and over 7 percent of children under the age of 5 suffer from wasting, a disease that causes muscle and fat tissue to “waste” away.
Children are exposed to heavy metals and neurotoxins resulting from bomb explosions and other ammunition, since those weapons affect not only those targeted but all those living nearby. In addition, contamination from depleted uranium and other military-related pollution is probably the cause of the rise in congenital birth defects and cancer. Mozhgan Savabieasfahani, an Iranian toxicologist, has found “alarming” levels of lead in the baby teeth of Iraqi children with birth defects
War and continuing violence in the country have had a serious impact on children’s education. According to UNICEF studies, 3 million children do not attend school on a regular basis and 1.2 million children are out of school. In addition, half of all schools in Iraq are in need of urgent repairs.
The water and sanitation infrastructure, damaged by heavy bombing and not yet repaired has led to a weakened health care system that puts children’s health and survival into jeopardy. At least 70 percent of displaced children (from a total 1.5 million displaced children) have missed a full year of school. Children with disabilities do not have access to education.
Between January 2014 and 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 labor, large numbers of children are compelled to work to be able to fulfill their own basic needs and to help their families.
The U.S.-British occupying forces and the Iraqi government have failed to fulfill their most basic duties toward the children of Iraq, in accordance with the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Iraq, Great Britain and the U.S. have signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child, although the U.S. is the only stable country in the world that has not ratified it The other two countries are Somalia and South Sudan.
A new year offers the opportunity to intensify efforts to help Iraqi children lead normal lives. The U.S.-led war has caused tremendous damage to the public health infrastructure and to the social fabric in the country. Although the war on Iraq has ended, ruthless attacks on Iraqi children continue.
Cesar Chelala is an international public health consultant, and a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award and two national journalism awards form Argentina. He is the foreign correspondent for The Middle East Times International (Australia).