Hundreds forced to scavenge for food in garbage bins

Barira Mihran, a 36-year-old mother of three, scavenges every day in other people’s dustbins in Baghdad for leftovers on which to feed her children.

Widowed and displaced by sectarian violence, the unemployed mother said she had no other way of providing for her children.

“In the beginning it was very difficult. I never imagined that one day I was going to be forced by destiny to feed my children from the remains of other people’s food,” Barira said. “We always had good food on our table when my husband was alive but since he was killed in August 2005, my life has gone from bad to worse.”

“My children are under age and so cannot work or beg in the streets,” she said.

“Sometimes you have to fight for a dustbin. Many women know which houses have good leftovers and so they wait for hours near the houses until the leftovers are thrown in the bins outside. Then you can see at least 10 people, women and children, running to get it, and I will be in the middle of the crowd, for sure,” Barira added.

Survey

Barira, an educated woman, has now joined hundreds of other mothers who rummage through rubbish bins for food to feed their children, according to the Baghdad-based Women’s Rights Association (WRA), which conducted a survey of displaced families and people living on the streets in 12 provinces (excluding the Kurdistan region) between January and August 2007.

Mayada Zuhair, a WRA spokeswoman, said the survey showed an increase of 25 percent, since the previous survey in December 2005, in the number of mothers who fed their children either by scavenging in people’s rubbish bins or by becoming sex workers. Of the 3,572 respondents, 72 percent were women (mainly widowed) and of these 9 percent said they had resorted to prostitution and 17 percent said they scavenged for food in dustbins and at rubbish tips. The survey was published and distributed to non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and local government offices.

“This is now a common sight, especially in Baghdad - mothers standing near dustbins trying to find some food for their children,” Mayada said.

Government food rations

Government monthly food rations - including rice, beans, lentils, flour and cooking oil - are in principle available to Iraqi families regardless of income, on production of proof of citizenship and a fixed address.

The system was introduced by former President Saddam Hussein to offset the impact of sanctions and paid for by Iraqi oil under UN administration. The system is currently reaching only 60 percent of its target, and quality and quantities are in decline, Iraqi officials say.

Those without identity papers have particular problems: Mayada said many families have lost their documents, which means they cannot access the rations.

“The women who feed their children from leftovers have lost everything - homes, husbands, relatives, documents and respect,” Mayada added.

“Women require urgent support but few NGOs are able to help and these street children are suffering from diarrhoea, malnutrition and some are starving,” Mayada said.

Zahra’a Abdel-Lattef, a senior official at the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, said there were no projects helping such families: “Some mothers approach us for help and we do whatever we can. We try to give some of them new food ration cards; to others we offer mattresses and blankets and in a few cases we are able to find [them] a job,” she said.

Vulnerable to attack

According to the local police, many homeless women, walking around with their children on the streets of the capital, are victims of violence.

“We have some cases of women who were raped, and their children attacked and sometimes even killed while out looking for food or a place to spend the night,” Col Hassan Abdul-Khaaliq, head of Bab-al-Muadham police station in Baghdad, said.

“They need a safe place to stay because the streets in Iraq are very dangerous today and walking alone at night... leaves them open to attack by militants or insurgents,” Abdul-Khaaliq said.

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