By Ziyad Khalaf al-Ajely in Baghdad (ICR No. 127, 08-Jun-05)
An investigator at al-Karkh criminal court said he recently walked into his office to find a 5-year-old girl and her younger brother waiting for him.
She asked him if the court could take her and her brother because their parents were beating them every day.
"We found out her parents were not capable of taking care of them and she and her two little brothers were taken to one of the orphanages in Baghdad," said the investigator, who declined to give his name.
That a five-year-old should have to turn up at a court to complain about abuse is illustrative of the apparent crisis facing the child protection sector.
Legal and health authorities say they are worried that child abuse cases are being neglected because the government is focusing on fighting the insurgency.
They're concerned that crucial personnel and funds are being diverted away from child protection to bolster the efforts of the security forces.
Sajida Mahmood, chief judge of al-Rusafa juvenile court, said that even when victims register complaints of abuse in court, there aren't enough staff to thoroughly investigate the charges because priority is being given to security cases.
Health officials, meanwhile, fear that the battle against the militants is soaking up funding for school-based social workers who play a key role in identifying signs of abuse amongst youngsters.
Funding shortages have meant that many schools don't have social workers and those that have assign them teaching responsibilities because they are so stretched.
As a consequence, Dr Ayad Nuri, manager of the psychological healthcare programme at the ministry of health, said he receives very few reports from social workers on children suspected of suffering abuse.
Dr Harith Abdul Hameed, head of the Psychological and Education Research Centre, said child abuse cases have increased because the lack of security is taking its toll on family life, with parents taking out their frustrations and anxieties on their children.
He cited cases researched at the centre of minors being beaten by their fathers or even choked or suffocated to death by their mothers.
Jwan Matee, the head of the al-Ghusin al-Akhdher nursery, said they sometimes come across evidence of the former, "The children are in good condition when they go home, but the next day we find bruises on their face or body. Later, we discover they were beaten by their fathers."
One of the few studies examining violence against children was conducted by Faeq Ameen Bakr, director general of the Institute of Forensic Medicine, and Nabil Ghazi, an assistant professor at the College of Medicine.
They studied 33,500 cases in Baghdad in which children died or were seriously injured because of harm inflicted by relatives. The study covered 1989 to 1999 and was published in 2001.
It showed 50 per cent of abuse cases - half of them involving children below the age of three - ended in death or permanent handicap.
Bakr is now preparing a report for the ministry of health on child abuse
"I think the rate of abused children in Iraq now is more than before," said Bakr. He noted that the violence across the country was spilling over into the home but the authorities didn't have the resources to deal with the latter.
Ziyad Khalaf al-Ajely is an IWPR trainee in Baghdad.