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UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

IRAQ: Children work instead of going to school

BAGHDAD, 16 September 2004 (IRIN) - Iraqi children are suffering both economically and psychologically after the war to topple Saddam Hussein, with many forced to work instead of attending school, a recent Ministry of Education (MoE) survey says.

Hassan al-Joubouri, 12, and his brother, Hussein, 10, have smudges of dirt on their faces and arms from their work digging through rubbish in Haifa Street in central Baghdad to find aluminium cans and other metal scraps which they sell for around 600 dinars, or 50 cents, per kilo.

The Haifa Street neighbourhood of high-rise apartment buildings was recently nicknamed "Little Fallujah" after at least 20 insurgents were killed on Sunday by a helicopter strike. Fallujah, about 50 kilometres west of Baghdad, is home to anti-American forces, many thought to be loyal to former president Saddam Hussein.

"We had to leave school to help make money for our family," Hassan al-Joubouri told IRIN. "I want to continue with school, but my family needs me."

His sister, Esra, 7, sets down her dirty white bag and pulls a piece of red piece of plastic out of her pocket to suck on. Hassan is suspicious at first and doesn't want to answer when asked why he and his siblings don't go to school.

Many children sell cigarettes, fruit, sweets and tissues on the side of the street and at intersections in Baghdad and other large cities around the country. They also often shine shoes and beg for money.

It's not new for children to be working in Iraq but increasing poverty seems to be keeping many on the streets rather than at school, Addila al-Kayai, who conducted the survey, told IRIN, adding that it was hard to get exact statistics.

"These encounters [with working children] make me sad. Many children aren't going to school and are forced to work," al-Kayai said. "Many families seem to have less money now to survive."

Al-Kayai, an expert on educational issues at the MoE, carried out the study, released in August, to look at the treatment of children at a time of rapid social change in the country.

"When I see children out in the street, I stop and ask them why they left school," al-Kayai told IRIN. "I try to convince them that they can go to school in the morning and work on the street in the afternoon."

But options are difficult for some.

Hassan's family gets a monthly food ration from the Ministry of Trade (MoT), but they are still hungry, he said. He worked as a painter with his father before the war, a job he could do after school in the morning.

"My mother can never buy meat, so I have to help her," he said.

Figures on school attendance are hard to pin down, but according to World Bank data 25 percent of primary-school age children do not go to school. One reason why attendance may vary is the poor security situation in Iraq. Inadequate conditions and insecurity also account for the lower number of girls in school (1.9 million out of 4.3 million primary-school age children), UNICEF said in a statement earlier this month.

The MoE survey also found that many children are now more violent when they play with each other and are more hyperactive, which may be the result of seeing increased levels of violence around them in society, al-Kayai said.

"It is natural now because of the situation from the war. Also, the role of the family has declined greatly," she said. "Dramatic changes in society are affecting children."

The ministry wants teachers to be aware of the psychological changes and to be prepared to deal with them, al-Kayai said. The education minister is expected to make the study available to teachers so they can learn new ways to help their students, such as giving them more responsibility.

"In my visits to schools, I noticed that teachers didn't know how to treat the children who are too disruptive," al-Kayai said.

In a separate survey, she also looked at how older children are affected by the recent changes around them. Teenagers face many social changes at a time when they're very impressionable, she said. It is estimated that over half of Iraq's population are under 20.

Some intelligence officials in Iraq warn that it is exactly the large number of underemployed teenagers who make groups such as the Mehdi militia, led by anti-US cleric Moqtada Sadr, so volatile. Sadr has a cache of weapons and a large number of potential new recruits available to him, they say.

"Children need someone to look after them. It's useful for them and for society," al-Kayai said. "However, to talk about this issue is not easy."

But since the fall of the regime, more of those children appear to want to go back to school, al-Kayai said in a positive note in the study. Although there are no official statistics yet, many poor families who were oppressed under the former regime want their children to have a chance in life through education, she said.

Schools in Iraq were supposed to start on 1 September but the new term has been postponed until 1 October because of recent fighting between Mehdi forces and US troops in the south; between US troops and insurgents in Baghdad and its suburb of Sadr City; and in insurgent strongholds north and west of the capital known as the "Sunni Triangle".

Themes: (IRIN) Children

[ENDS]

 

 

This material comes to you via IRIN, a UN humanitarian information unit, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies. If you re-print, copy, archive or re-post this item, please retain this credit and disclaimer. Quotations or extracts should include attribution to the original sources. All materials copyright © UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2004



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