Child labour on the rise as poverty increases

Iyad Abdel-Salim, 12, left school six months ago and has been working to boost the family income. His father was killed in Iraq’s political violence. As the only boy in the family, and with three smaller sisters to look after, he was forced to go onto the streets and work.

“I cannot see my family suffer without food. My mother cannot go to work because she has to stay with my sisters, and our uncles cannot help us as they are displaced and without money,” Abdel-Salim said.

“I feel tired when I get home. I usually stay 12 hours in the streets selling chocolates and pencils. I eat just one meal a day to save money, and when I return I just want to sleep,” he said.

Thousands of children, like Abdel-Salam, have moved onto the streets to help augment their family’s income, either because they have lost their fathers in the violence, or because they are forced to help as their families do not consider education to be important. Some of the children have no one to look after them.

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“I have no choice. Life in Iraq has turned into hell. It is dangerous to work in the streets. Twice men tried to rape me. God protected me and I was saved, but maybe one day I will be abused,” Abdel-Salim said.

Poverty

The UN Children’s Agency (UNICEF) estimates that about 11 percent of Iraqi children under 14 work.

Claire Hajaj, communications officer at UNICEF’s Iraq Support Centre in Amman (ISCA), said poverty was driving more children to work on the streets.

The 2006 annual UNDP report said one third of Iraqi families are living in poverty, but specialists believe the number could have increased markedly since then.

“Since last year we have observed a huge increase in the number of children on the streets, and the number of orphans resulting from sectarian violence has also increased. This is disastrous for the future of Iraq because those children are not getting an education and are exposed to drugs, prostitution and sexual harassment,” Professor Salah Faris, a social and economic analyst at Baghdad University, said, adding: “There are few projects tackling child labour in Iraq today. This is unacceptable.”

''Since last year we have observed a huge increase in the number of children on the streets, and the number of orphans resulting from sectarian violence has also increased. This is disastrous for the future of Iraq.''

New programme

The Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs in partnership with UNICEF, has developed a programme to take children off streets and this has already borne fruit.

“They [the children] are given the opportunity to go to a centre and receive psychological support and then return to their family,” Hajaj said.

“Already, 150 children have retuned to their families… but this is a small project which needs much more funding,” she added.

Hajaj said one of the main ways to tackle the problem was to help children return to school by offering them support and finding mechanisms to help families.

Threats, killings

Ali Mussawi, president of the local non-governmental organisation (NGO) Keeping Children Alive (KCA), said two of their projects tackling child labour had to be stopped after they received threats from gangs and militias that were using children on the streets as fighters or drug sellers.

“NGOs in Iraq are suffering as a result of the insecurity. Two of our volunteers were killed while doing their job trying to collect children from streets,” Mussawi said. “They were killed for trying to help children and now we feel impotent and useless.”

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