Young girls sell narcissus at the traffic lights. Boys push carts with fruit or ice blocks, serve tea, help unload trucks and run errands for shopkeepers. Child labor is already part of daily life in Iraq, but since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, a record number of children have entered the workplace.
“It is not a priority for the authorities to tackle this,” said Vice President Tanya Gilly Khailany of the Seed Foundation, providing one reason for its continued growth. This lack of urgency translates into a lack of official statistics. Both nongovernmental organizations working in Iraq and the International Labor Organization (ILO) have called for action.
With the last known figure for child labor in Iraq at 7.3% and dating from 2018, last October the UN refugee agency UNHCR found that of the 1,600 internally displaced people and refugees it questioned in Iraq, 17% had resorted to sending their children out to work to generate income. Another 42% cut costs by marrying off their underage daughters.
The main driver behind the increase in child labor is growing poverty, Gilly pointed out over Zoom from her office in the Kurdistan capital, Erbil. According to recent Iraqi figures, the percentage of Iraqis living below the poverty line had risen to almost a third (32%) from 20% in 2018. Because of lockdowns and other COVID-related measures, many Iraqis have lost their incomes. “A large part of the Iraqi community is poor, and for a number of reasons,” Gilly stated. Before the crisis, one in five children and teenagers was poor. Now that figure is two out of five — almost 38% of all Iraqi children.
Gilly pointed out that especially in households that have lost their breadwinners, mothers have had to send their children to work. According to Iraqi law, it is illegal for children under the age of 15 to work. “Some people still feel that not all labor is bad for children. But where should the line be drawn?” she asked despairingly. Child labor not only prevents children from being kids and playing, it also keeps them out of school, and thus deprives them of the chance for a better future, she said.
“Child labor is dangerous and should be tackled because it deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and it also harms their physical and mental development,” said Lawen Hawezy, the ILO’s chief technical adviser for Iraq. “To be more precise, child labor is mentally, physically, socially and morally dangerous and harmful for children.”
He pointed out that apart from regular work, before the pandemic, almost 6% of children were involved in hazardous work. It means “children being enslaved, separated from their families, exposed to serious hazards and illnesses and left to fend for themselves on the streets.” Gilly added that some children are being conscripted by armed groups like the Islamic State: “That must be the worst child labor of all.”
To address the problem, Hawezy saed, the ILO has developed a national action plan against child labor that will support at least 1,500 underage Iraqi children who are working or at risk of having to work and their families.
Another worrying development is that the age of the children entering the labor market has gone down. Before, it was mostly teenage boys of around 14 years of age who were sent out to work. Now they are often no older than seven or eight, said child protection officer Afrah Mosa of the International Rescue Committee. It's a trend the UN Children’s Fund UNICEF confirms.
From her office in Erbil, Mosa pointed out that not only COVID, but also the sudden closure of over a dozen displacement camps by the Iraqi government have led to the increase in child labor. Since October, tens of thousands of internally displaced people have been forced out of them. Aid groups put the number of those left in limbo by the closures at around 100,000. Mosa stated that most of the children affected have ended up being sent out to work. “The families were not ready to leave. They had already lost their source of income and their house. Now they use their children to survive.”
Iraq still has as many as 3.4 million IDPs and refugees who need assistance, according to the United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Of them, 2.4 million are in acute need because they have lost their jobs, are accumulating debt and cannot meet their basic needs.
Many children who were traumatized by the war now feel the added pressure of having to look after their families, said Mosa. “For boys, that responsibility causes a lot of stress, especially if the mother is alone.” A lot of child labor is hidden, she added. The child does not mention it to outsiders and neither do the parents, as they know that it is a punishable offense. At the same time, boys can often be proud of their new status. “It is part of the culture. They are now the head of the family and have to protect their mothers and siblings.”
Stressing that children should be able to play and go to school, the Seed Foundation works with the Kurdish police and authorities to raise awareness, said Gilly, and to change laws to reflect international regulations regarding child labor and child protection. She said sponsorship programs for poor families are needed, along with training for single mothers so they can work and generate income for their families.
While Gilly calls for the problem to be better documented in Iraq, Hawezy shares that the ILO is setting up a Child Labor Monitoring System in Iraq. The system will include ex-child laborers as well as communities and local authorities in order to make sure children as well as young, legally employed workers are safe from exploitation and hazards at work.