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Number of Iraqi orphans, widows rising with conflict

Recent military operations in Iraq against the Islamic State have led to a spike in the number of orphans and widows.
Orphan boys share earphones as they listen to music in their room in the Safe House orphanage in Baghdad's Sadr City February 11, 2009. As violence finally fades and U.S. troops prepare to withdraw, sociologists and health experts say the children's reactions to such trauma could threaten Iraq's fragile calm just as it needs stability to rebuild. Picture taken February 11, 2009. To match feature IRAQ-ORPHANS/    REUTERS/May Naji (IRAQ) - RTXC8UP

Naima Ibrahim, 36, lost her husband during the government's bombing of Fallujah in May. She had intended to flee the city with her husband and children after the city fell to militants belonging to the Islamic State (IS) and some tribal groups, but her husband died in the shelling while out buying food. His death forced her to remain in Fallujah. She and her children now live on the money provided by her brothers and neighbors in addition to aid from humanitarian organizations in Anbar province.

Ali al-Hayali, a member of the Al-Khair Foundation, which operates out of Anbar, took it upon himself to help cases similar to Ibrahim’s. He estimates that about 400 children have been orphaned in the province since the start of the government's military operations against the armed groups in December of last year. Hayali’s association, along with a group of other civil and humanitarian organizations, is trying to assess the extent of the destruction that befell Fallujah. The incessant shelling and blocking of roads between the province's cities has made it difficult to compile accurate statistics on the number of orphans.

The local government in Anbar does not have specific statistics on these orphans, given its poor government services. The lack of clear information has worsened the orphan's situation and prevented any future aid.

Hayali has, however, been able to reach some widows and give them food packages. "The local government in Anbar merely registers the orphans and widows in their records. It does not help them," he told Al-Monitor by phone. Hayali acknowledged the difficulty facing the provincial government in taking heed of the orphans and widows, due to the worsening crisis, poor security situation and ongoing military operations. "Most of the employees of the concerned departments have been displaced," he said.

Sabah Karhout, head of the Anbar Provincial Council, told Al-Monitor by phone, "The military operations and random shelling by the army and the militants have left many people dead, meaning an increase in the [number] of orphans." He stressed, "The indiscriminate shelling operations must stop. …​ Anbar has requested the Baghdad government to stop the indiscriminate shelling and military operations in the province multiple times, but it did not respond."

According to Karhout, his council has "repeatedly tried to find peaceful, rather than military, solutions to get out of the crisis." He added, "Our demands are not heeded." Karhout called on the new government to "stop the fighting and military operations, and find ways to communicate with the tribes to get out of the crisis as soon as possible."

On Sept. 13, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi issued orders to stop the bombardment of all cities where civilians are still present, even if members of IS are present. Abadi stressed that his government does not want more innocent victims. However, two days after Abadi's decision, Fallujah's hospital said it was hit by mortar rockets again.

Since the US-led invasion of Iraq in April 2003, local and international organizations have recorded a rise in the number of orphans and widows due to the worsening security situation. Iraq has not seen stability in more than 10 years, and this has begun to cast its shadows on society.

In 2011, UNICEF estimated that 800,000 children in Iraq had lost either one or both parents. This figure must have increased due to the severe attacks suffered by Iraq during the past couple of years, especially 2013, which the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) considered one of the bloodiest years Iraq has ever seen.

According to Ikhlas Dulaimi, a sociology researcher, "The rise in orphans in Anbar is caused by the wars." She told Al-Monitor, "The worsening cases of orphans will reflect negatively on the province in the long term. They will be forced to work to support their families after they leave school." Dulaimi also stated, "In the future, we will have thousands of uneducated youth who suffer from unemployment. They will be [recruited] by the armed groups that seek to destabilize the state — something that will be very easy."

The Iraqi government does not have a clear strategy to deal with this issue, which will only worsen with time. Civil organizations have pointed to flaws in legislation that guarantees orphans' rights and fail to oversee negligent orphanages. Iraq's Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs pointed to 23 such orphanages that were not providing ample care and education to orphans. These orphans were unable to integrate into society after reaching working age. This situation, if it continues, will push these orphans toward unemployment or their recruitment by militias.

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