Eleven-year-old Mahmoud al-Obaidi walks seven km every morning to get to work at a carpentry factory in Baghdad so he can save his bus fares.
Al-Obaidi is the only male in his family of four, as his father disappeared five years ago and he works to support his family. On average he spends nearly 10 hours a day in the factory earning a living.
"I didn't have a choice. Work was the only option. I cannot deny that I would like to be at a school, learning like other children. But I know the responsibility that I have to carry," al-Obaidi told IRIN, as he walked to work.
He boy is only one of thousands of Iraqi children forced by poverty to work at an early age.
More than a million youngsters work often enduring hazardous conditions, as well as being vulnerable to sexual abuse and violence, according to a report released at the end of 2004. The report was based on a nationwide survey in which 19,610 Iraqis participated.
The project was a joint effort between the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and several Iraqi ministries, including the Ministry of Health (MoH), Ministry of Public Works and Social Affairs (MoPWSA) and the Ministry of Education (MoE).
Nearly 250 students aged between nine and 14 dropped out of school to begin work between January and March, according to a report by the MoE. Officials say that number is likely to increase following the downturn in the country’s economic fortunes in the post-Saddam era.
“Our children are leaving schools and they represent the future of Iraq. If the government guarantees a better life for their families for sure they won’t have to work and for this reason urgent action should be taken by the new Iraqi government,” a senior official at the MoE, Khalid Youssef, told IRIN.
CHILDREN WORKING TO SURVIVE
The main reason for child labour in Iraq is poverty. Nearly 25 percent of the country’s population lives below the poverty line, according to the interim government.
There is also a strong culture of child labour in Iraq. Even with free schools and universities in the country, many families won’t allow youngsters to attend school, saying that it is important for them to go out and work as early as possible according to experts.
“I believe that we marry and have children to alleviate our lives from work. My father made me work at the age of nine and I sent my children to work when they were 10. There is nothing wrong with that, especially for families who do not have good financial support like mine," Omar Adnan, a father of three, told IRIN.
Most street children in the capital work and can be seen selling cigarettes, newspapers and other small household items.
Markets and industry also employ large numbers of children who are usually forced undertake dangerous, arduous jobs for low pay, enduring long hours, according to the Ministry of Industry (MoI) and Ministry of Trade (MoT).
According to the 2004 survey, nearly 1,300,000 children, aged between eight and 16 were working. This represents 6.1 percent of the country's population.
In addition, the survey revealed long working hours, with 27 percent of children working for more than eight hours daily.
Those who start working at an early stage were found to be mainly from the rural areas, the survey said, because of more harsh economic conditions there.
"The lack of security and political uncertainties have left economic activities stunted and social safety nets disrupted, while unemployment and poverty have deepened. Under these circumstances, more children and youths have been driven to work or beg on the streets, or toil at various labour sites, often under hazardous conditions, in order to supplement dwindling family incomes,” a spokeswoman for UNICEF, Ban Dhayi, told IRIN from the Jordanian capital, Amman.
Some of these children and youths are the sole breadwinners of the family due to the death, disability or unemployment of their parents, Dhayi added.
“Working children were already researched and documented in northern Iraq and were seen in southern and central Iraq before the war, but the socio/economic circumstances of Iraq following the war in 2003 are seen to have pushed more children to the streets and worksites,” the UNICEF official said.
Many children also make a living through drugs and prostitution, perceived to be easier ways of earning money, according to the Iraqi Red Crescent Society (IRCS).
"Children should be in schools and not on the streets or working in dangerous places where no one will take responsibility for them," a spokeswoman for the IRCS, Firdous al-Abadi, told IRIN.
Nearly nine percent of child workers had been injured, according to the UNICEF 2004 survey and nearly 58 percent of working children interviewed had suffered violence.
Doctors in the capital said they treat at least one child injured at work every day, most hurt by exposure to dangerous chemicals.
Dr Haydar al-Yassin, at the Yarmouk hospital, the largest emergency facility in the country, told IRIN that it is common for employers to lie about how the injuries were sustained, so they don't have to take responsibility.
"Children work in hazardous environments and there is no law to protect them. Sometimes the child dies in hospital due to the injuries. Last week we had a case where a child's entire body was burned after a gas cooking cylinder exploded in a kitchen at a local restaurant," al-Yassin explained.
The MoH also reported that sick children only seek medical help after becoming seriously ill.
In addition, a January 2005 study by the MoH, in partnership with the MoPWSA, found that nearly 55 percent of children, who work in rural areas, suffer from skin diseases.
Those in workshops and large industries also showed high incidences of respiratory problems following exposure to harmful chemicals and gases.
Projects to prevent the abuse of working children and to promote more schooling have been implemented.
In April, the government banned shopkeepers and industry from employing children under the age of 14. Those who do not obey the law may be subjected to huge fines.
The penalty varies from US $100 to $300 but persistent offenders may be closed down. Whether the law will be implemented remains to be seen.
In addition, youngsters found working in these industries may receive a payment of $50 and continued support from the government, so that they do not have to go back to work and can return to their studies.
"Our ministry has had success and hundreds of children have returned to schools and left work where they were being abused and were receiving poor salaries," minister of public work and social affairs, Leila Abdul-Lattef, told IRIN.
The MoPWSA also supported the opening of Mercy House in Baghdad, a place where the poorest children and most disadvantaged members of Iraqi society are offered assistance.
Street children, who beg or are forced to work, receive support at the centre, which offers education and protection from abuse and violence.
The MoPWSA has also asked the new Iraqi government to ensure children are protected under the new constitution.
"The abuse on the streets against children’s rights is frequent and we will continue our work to change this and bring security and a better future for each Iraqi child," Abdul-Lattef added.