- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 22, 2005


Ali Mohammed Hussein, 9, ran away from his Karbala home in June after his abusive father made him quit school and seek full-time work.

No one hired the small-boned, fragile-looking boy, and he could find no means to earn money, so he decided to return to school against his father’s wishes.

“I told him I wanted to go school and learn to read and write,” Ali said. “He cut my legs with a hot knife and beat me with a chain. I left home the next day.”

More than 1.3 million Iraqis ages 8 to 16 are in the work force, said a joint report last year by the Iraqi government and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

Of these, 27 percent work more than eight hours a day. Child-advocacy groups in the United States estimate that only 8 percent of American 15-year-olds work 15 or more hours per week.

The consequences of Iraq’s child labor crisis are evident across society. A separate survey last year by UNICEF and Iraq’s Education Ministry put the number of children not enrolled in secondary school at 2 million, nearly half those of high school age. In comparison, about 96 percent of Americans that age are enrolled in high schools.

Longing for education

“Many of my friends are working now instead of going to school,” said Hassan Sameer, 16. The eldest son in a family of eight said he has abandoned thoughts of going to school now that he earns $110 per month at a Baghdad furniture market.

“My younger brothers tell me I should get an education, but there is no time for me to read and study,” he said. “I tell them, ‘You stay in school and make me proud.’”

Iraq’s child labor crisis began with the sanctions imposed after the 1991 Gulf War. The percentage of children ages 6 to 14 working instead of going to school rose from 1.3 percent in 1987 to 7.2 percent in 1997.

Officials at the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs say the situation has worsened since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003. About a quarter of Iraqis now live in poverty and the unemployment rate reached 26 percent during the first half of last year, the Central Statistics Bureau reports.

“We have entire families with no means of support,” said Layla K. Aziz, a director-general in the ministry.

Mrs. Aziz said the government is struggling to protect children’s rights while trying to rebuild the country in an unstable and insecure environment. She said aid organizations have provided scant support and many have fled the country after finding themselves targets of violence.

The government bans children 14 and younger from working outside their homes, but officials say child labor so is pervasive that the law is difficult to enforce.

This leaves countless children, most illiterate, seeking work on Baghdad streets.

Little choice for parents

Abbas Abdul Hussein, 12, quit school two years ago to help support his parents and five sisters. He says he earns $20 per month collecting cans to resell as scrap in Sadr City, a Shi’ite neighborhood where garbage left in gutters festers in the relentless afternoon sun.

“I quit on my own because I wanted to help my family,” Abbas said. “I cannot read or write. I hope to go back to school, but it is not possible now.”

His father, Abdul Hussein, 46, is a day laborer, who collects cans with his son when he cannot find work.

Mr. Hussein said he does not want his son to work, but there is little choice. “No one wants their children to quit school,” he said, “but what can I do? We have to survive.”

Hussein Dawad, 10, stands on the side of a road in Sadr City pouring gasoline into the tanks of Iraqi vehicles. Motorists pay extra to bypass the mile-long lines at the pumps.

The boy is the only son left in his house. He said he works to support five sisters, his mother and a disabled father.

“I could not get a job last year, so I am lucky to have this one,” the child said. He dreams of playing professional soccer, but would settle for returning to classes for now. “I am still trying to go back.”

Most Iraqi working children ages 6 to 14 toil at home or in agricultural activities for their families. The work often is detrimental to their physical and psychological development, the UNICEF-Iraqi government report said.

Elaf Mohamed, 12, washes dishes and cleans her family’s modest apartment instead of attending classes because her parents can afford to send only three of their six children to school. Her mother, Hudda Abbas, 35, says her husband does not receive a pension for his 25 years of military service and earns less than $100 a month driving a taxi.

“She was a very good student, so it is unfortunate,” Mrs. Abbas said at her Baghdad home. “We do not have the money to pay for shoes, clothes, notebooks and transportation for six children.”

Ali Mohammed Hussein, whose father forced him to quit school, is one of the lucky children.

He has returned to his studies with help from the Children First House, which the Ministry of Social Affairs established two years ago in the Iraqi capital for abused and abandoned children. Ali and 19 other boys ages 6 to 14 study without financial burdens.

He speaks with steely determination about his opportunity to learn to read and write, but reveals a mix of grief, bliss and doubt in his drawings: exteriors of modestly landscaped houses, armed men walking under a shower of bombs falling from a dark sky, colorful flowers in full bloom, and a boy sitting alone under a tree with his head buried in his arms and a large question mark hanging over him.

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