The desperate situation of Iraqi children has been largely created by the international community, the US and UK in particular. Iraq has been exposed to:
- two decades of sanctions and punitive reparation payments which have hit the most vulnerable members of society;
- the destruction of vital civilian infrastructure through targeted bombing;
- the collapse of state apparatus after the 2003 invasion;
- continuous military violence and the opening of the country to al-Qaeda and other fundamentalist forces;
- a constitution founded on ethnic and religious division and US/UK support of sectarian and misogynist factions;
- corrupt governance
Counting the Dead
A survey published in January 2008, conducted in August and September 2007 by Opinion Research Business, a British polling firm, in conjunction with Iraq’s Independent Institute for Administration and Civil Society Studies found that about 20% of households surveyed had lost at least one member, and estimated that 1.03 million people had died in the war with a 95% certainty for a number of deaths between 946,000 and 1.12 million.
The deaths of so many men, women and children have had an enormous impact on Iraqi society. According to the Iraqi government,around 4.5 million children have lost one or both parents (almost 1 in 3) and approximately 600 000 children are living on the streets. Child labour has increased with 15% of children under the age of 14 now working. There are now between 1 and 3 million widows in Iraq, many struggling as heads of households and living in extreme poverty.
So far this year (July 2012) 49 children have been killed and 169 injured in the violence.
Displacement and Disappearances
More than 4 million Iraqis have been displaced since 2003, including almost 2 million children. After 2006 the total number of internally displaced peopls (IDPs) in the country was one of the highest in the world, at 2.7 million and 1.7 million refugees were stranded in neighbouring countries, mainly Syria and Jordan. Internal displacement is now down to 1.3 million but many of these families are living in appalling conditions with fundamental needs such as food, shelter, clean water, health and education not being met. Internally displaced children are particularly vulnerable. They are often victims of crime, exploitation and abduction. According to an UNHCR report, 2009, 2o% of internally displaced and 5% of returnee families reported cases of missing children. This amounted to around 93 500 children who had disappeared as a result of violence, kidnapping, abduction or forced recruitment by armed forces.
Other Issues facing Iraq’s children
In the 1970s, Iraq was one of the best countries in the Middle East and North Africa to be a child, but due to decades of war and neglect, it has become one of the worst. Some of the issues facing Iraq’s 15 million children now include the following:
- Each year, around 35,000 infants die before reaching their first birthday
- Over 1.5 million children under the age of five are undernourished
- Around 700,000 children are not enrolled in primary school, while hundreds of thousands more drop out before graduating
- 2.5 million children do not have access to safe water, and 3.5 million lack adequate sanitation facilities
Around 800,000 children between the ages of 5 and 14 are working.
Seven percent of Iraq’s population suffers from hunger or food deprivation. Although levels of malnutrition are improving, more than one in five children in Iraq (22%) aged under five years continues to show stunted growth, 5% suffer from wasting and 9% are underweight.
According to the Iraqi Ministry of Agriculture, around 90 % of Iraq’s land is turning into desert or encountering severe desertification. A major problem in salinisation. 80% of Iraq’s food is now imported. In the past principal crops have included dates, wheat, barley, maize, rice and cotton, as well as a wide variety of fruit and vegetables. Food deprived households are concentrated particularly in Basrah, Diyala, Babylon, Salah al Deen, Kerbala and Muthanna governorates, where the prevalence of food deprivation ranges from 17% to 51%. Ironically these are predominantly agricultural areas where the poor quality of the land has pushed people into economic hardship.
Food insecurity in Iraq exists because people lack the financial resources to buy sufficient quantity and quality of food, not because it is not available.
23% of the Iraqi population live on less than $2.2 a day. Women headed households are more likely to live in destitution. An estimated 1 -3 million households are headed by a woman, the majority widows.
“…the wave of violence and turmoil in Iraq has lead to the deterioration of linear growth of young children though not necessarily affecting weight. This provides evidence that the problem is not the quantity but the quality of food and shows that stunting is a serious problem among children in Iraq.” Iraq war stunts children′s growth
Prior to 1990, Iraq had developed a sophisticated water and sanitation system and potable water reached all urban areas and over half of rural areas. The heavy bombardment of 1991 targeted these facilities as well as the electrical power plants which ran them. The sanctions banned the import of chlorine products and the necessary parts for repair. This resulted in contaminated water systems, causing water-borne diseases. At the height of the sanctions between 4000 and 6000 Iraqi children under the age of five were dying each month, mainly from diarrhoea, malnutrition and respiratory tract infections. By 1999 UNICEF had recorded 500 000 excess deaths of children between the ages of 0 – 5. By 2000 child mortality had increased by 160% making it the highest regression rate in the 188 countries listed in a UNICEF survey.
In 2003, Professor Ian Roberts, professor of epidemiology and public heath at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, wrote: “… the Anglo-American bombing of water supplies, sanitation plants, and the power plants that are necessary for their functioning, constitutes a biological attack ….the microbial agents that can cause devastating epidemics of diarrhoea are ubiquitous, lethal, and are readily disseminated by destroying the civilian sanitation infrastructure by bombing or otherwise destroying water sanitation and sewage disposal systems.”
In 2003 when the sanctions were lifted, 19% of the population had no access to safe water. After the invasion the situation worsened leading to severe outbreaks of cholera in 2007 and 2008. According to UNICEF, it now stands at 24%, or nearly one in four Iraqis without access to safe water. In rural areas, nearly half of the people are without safe drinking water with 26% using rivers and creeks to access their water and only 5% using public taps. Read more
Recent severe droughts have exacerbated the water shortages, as have the hydroelectric dams built on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Iran, Turkey and Syria. Water shortage is causing the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people in both northern and southern Iraq. A large amount of water is also needed for the functioning of the oil industry, thus water shortage may ultimately compromise Iraq’s main source of revenue, and poor people in rural areas may find themselves competing for water against the needs of industry.
The destruction of the war and increasing population growth, has left Iraq with a massive shortage of housing. The UN estimates that 1.3 million units need to be built just to meet current needs. Many families are forced to live in cramped conditions. 37% of housing has three or more people per room. 71% of Iraqis live in urban areas and 57% of this urban population are living in slum conditions.According to an UNHRC fact sheet “Some 467,000 persons – comprising of IDPs, returnees and squatters – remain in more than 382 settlements throughout the country, with 191,163of them living in 125 illegal settlements in the capital, on public land or in public buildings, facing harsh living conditions, with limited access to electricity, adequate sanitation, schools, as well as job opportunities, in addition to being at risk of eviction by the authorities.”
The healthcare system in Iraq is still in a poor condition. During the 1980s Iraq had the best health system in the Middle East. Now after the dire sanctions era and invasion and occupation it is in a deplorable condition. It suffers from poor facilities, desperate shortage of skilled staff and is rife with corruption. Out of the 34 000 physicians registered by the Iraqi Medical Association during the 1990s, only 16 000 remain. Prime targets, they fled during the years of civil violence and do not feel hat Iraq is secure enough for them to return. Iraq also has only around 17 000 nurses. Many hospitals in urban areas have been rebuilt and are better stocked than during the time of sanctions but many facilities in rural areas are in a bad condition and all suffer from lack of electricity supply and poor sanitation. Widespread corruption means that patients often have to pay bribes or pay for medicines which should be free.
Poor nutrition and lack of safe drinking water means that only 1 in 5 children reach their fifth birthday. Many young children are suffering from anaemia and Vitamin A deficiency.
There has been an upsurge in childhood cancer and leukaemia since 1991. Also high incidence of congenital birth deformity, Down’s Syndrome and spina bifida. This appears to be related to the use of uranium metal in US and UK weapon systems.
Children in Iraq are suffering psychologically with depression and post traumatic stress disorder. An OXFAM survey made in 2006 showed that 92% of the children examined suffered from learning difficulties due to stress. Almost one in three Iraqi children have lost one or both parents, plus other relatives and friends. They have witnessed appalling scenes of violence and many have been displaced from their homes and communities.
Thousands of children have been maimed by the war and subsequent violence. Many have lost limbs but their families are unable to afford the most basic aids such as crutches or wheelchairs, let alone prosthesis.
“The Education system in Iraq, prior to 1991, was one of the best in the region, with over 100% Gross Enrolment Rate for primary schooling and high levels of literacy, both of men and women. The Higher Education, especially the scientific and technological institutions, were of an international standard, staffed by high quality personnel.” UNESCO and Education in IRAQ Fact Sheet
2007 -2008 gross enrolment figures show a drop in the overall number of children in primary education since the 2005. The number of children attending primary schools dropped by 88,164 between the school years 2004-05 and 2007-08; a drop of 2.02% in boys and 1.75% in girls. The poor state of primary education leads to a high drop-off in enrolment rates going into intermediate and secondary education. The net intermediate enrolment ratio is 37%, while the ratio at secondary level is even lower at 21%. Around 18% of Iraq s population above 9 years old is illiterate. Read more
- Chronic malnutrition, which affects one in five Iraqi children below the age of five, is undermining cognitive development, causing irreversible losses in opportunities for learning.
- Poor school infrastructure, including dilapidated buildings, lack of electricity, clean drinking water and clean toilets and overcrowded classrooms is hampering the learning process.
- A recent UN report shows a decline in the numbers of girls attending school. Reasons for this were mainly due to parental wishes (usually the father); the family’s financial circumstances or because there is no school near enough for them to be able, or allowed, to attend.
- Lack of security getting to and from school has been a factor in school attendance, especially for girls. Educational establishments and staff have been the focus of terrorist attack.
Child Victims of Crime
Despite a security improvement in Iraq, organised crime has been on the increase with a rise in children’s abduction by organized gangs Most kidnappings are for ransom. Government institutions for ensuring the protection of women, children, youth and other vulnerable groups are dysfunctional and unreliable.
Human rights for women and girls have taken a massive backward step since the 2003 invasion. Rape, prostitution, forced marriage, temporary marriages, ‘honour’ killings, sexual trafficking, domestic violence are now rife throughout Iraq and in Iraqi refugee communities and are taking place with impunity. Female genital mutilation still takes place in Iraqi Kurdistan. Thousands of women and girls are setting themselves on fire in order to escape abuse or forced marriage. See Prostituting and Trafficking of Women and Girls in Iraq
Al-Qaida are reportedly recruiting vulnerable children such as orphans, street children and the mentally disabled and running a youth wing for boys under the age of 14, called ‘Birds of Paradise’. Al-Qaida was not a problem for Iraq prior to 2003. Now they have a substantial presence.
Many children have been arrested by the Iraqi authorities on terrorism charges. More than 1,000 children were being held in Iraqi detention and reformatories at the end of 2008 and many of them may have been abused by security forces. Children are often held without proper care or legal representation. Because of the emphasis on confession in the Iraqi justice system, human rights groups are concerned about the level of intimidation or torture children are subjected to. In 2009, the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs started a ‘justice for children’ project with the help of UNICEF. Four mobile legal teams provide assistance to boys, many of whom have been accused of terrorism offences.