Iraq: Child worker help their families get by

Fatherless families send children as young as eight out to work on the streets.

By Sahar al-Haideri in Mosul (ICR No. 132, 12-Jul-05)

Seven-year-old Ibrahim Muhammed spends nearly ten hours a day on the street distributing printed verses of the Koran to earn money for his family.

Since his father was killed by American troops during a clash with insurgents, Muhammed has become the man of the family, and must help to support his mother and younger sisters.

He earns at least 2,000 dinars, just over one US dollar, per day from drivers and passers-by. This is known as a "gift", since tradition dictates that the verses of the Koran cannot be sold for commercial profit.

Muhammed has little choice. "My mother is unemployed and my uncle doesn't help us out," he said.

The violence plaguing Iraq has killed so many men that families find themselves without the male head of the household, who is generally the main breadwinner.

To make matters worse, the economy has gone into decline since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime. As a result, many children have been forced to drop out of school to help make ends meet for their families.

Across Iraqi cities, children can be seen at traffic lights selling cigarettes, boxes of tissues and other small items.

Nine-year-old Hammoodi Abdul-Wahab sells tissues, which he buys at 450 dinars per box and sells for 500. He works from 7 am to 7 pm, but sells only 10 boxes a day. He also begs, which earns him about 1,000 dinars a day.

"I want to go to school like my friends, but my father forces me and my four brothers to go out and sell things down town," he said.

Omer Ammar earns between 2,500 and 3,000 dinars a day during the summer, cleaning the windscreens of cars stopped at traffic lights. He is busiest at the beginning and end of each day, but he doesn't earn any money when it rains.

"If I don't bring money home, my stepfather beats me," said Ammar, who is ten. "I don't go to school because my stepfather forbids it and demands that I work."

Sari Ibrahim, 11, said he makes good money selling cigarettes and matches because most Iraqis are smokers. He earns 6,000 to 7,000 dinars each day, except during the holy month of Ramadhan when Muslims fast and are required to stop smoking. When the traffic gets quieter during lunchtime, he sells his products at internet cafes and tea shops.

"We have forgotten about playing because our main concern is to get money for our livelihood," he said. "I work more than 12 hours a day so I'm very tired when I get home."

Salma Dahham, 11, simply begs at traffic lights, sometimes weeping and telling drivers about her family situation. Her mother is sick and her father can only work one out of every ten days. Once she has earned 5,000 dinars, she heads home.

"My mother needs money to buy medicine," she said. "But I can't stay outside for long, because I'm a girl."

Children who sell their wares on the street do not only miss out on schooling, they are also exposed to serious dangers. Recently, eight-year-old Ahmed Sad was killed when a car bomb exploded at traffic lights.

Badir Jamal, a 44-year-old doctor, called the phenomenon of young children working on Iraq's streets a "catastrophe". He said, "It deprives children from being at home, which is where they should be. But how can we help them after the state has left them uncared for?"

The social care department within the ministry of labour and social affairs declined to comment on the issue.

Sociology professor Heithem Hasan said the trend of child labour is a natural consequence of war.

"The root of the problem is the decline in living conditions among Iraqi families," he said. "So the children leave school and are forced to work at an early age."

Sahar al-Haideri is an IWPR trainee in Iraq.