[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
BAGHDAD, 26 Dec 2005 (IRIN) - Khalid Amir, a ten-year-old boy whose surname means “the prince,” has built his castle in the streets of the capital, Baghdad. His daily income comes from selling sweets at traffic lights, where violence is part of his everyday life.
“Sometimes they hit me, or close the window on my hands,” said Amir, pointing to a scar on his face caused by a driver who struck him with a penknife a week ago.
“People don’t care who we are and where we come from,” he added.
Like Amir and his eight-year-old sister, Salua, hundreds of children can be seen on the streets of Baghdad struggling to eke out a living.
“I don’t have a choice,” explained Amir, adding that, if he returns home without money, his father will hit him.
Safa’a Muhammad, a senior official in the Ministry of Public Work and Social Affairs, concedes that few programmes are currently available to help children like Amir and his sister.
“Last year, we had many projects to help such children, but corruption in the ministry has caused them all to be delayed or ignored,” she said.
Ferdous al-Abadi, spokeswoman for the Iraqi Red Crescent Society (IRCS), said a lack of financing and constant insecurity prevent the organisation from effectively helping street children. “We’ve prepared three programmes with the aim of helping them, but due to the constant fighting in many areas of the country, and a lack of investment, we’ve put them aside.”
Chronic poverty and high rates of unemployment are largely to blame.
“If the government helped them by giving work to their parents, these children would be going to school today,” said Raghed Rabia’a, a psychologist who volunteers with several Baghdad-based NGOs.
Instead of going to school, though, children like Amir and Salua are growing up illiterate, forced to work to help support their families.
Most of these children also face regular malnourishment, health workers say.
“The only thing I eat all day is a piece of bread with some tomatoes and fried potatoes,” said Amir. “If we eat more than this, our father doesn’t let us eat the next day.”
Ali Salah, a doctor at Baghdad’s Yarmouk Hospital, says he regularly registers malnourished children who have been picked up by police.
He recounted the case of one nine-year old girl who said her family did not allow her to eat more than bread and tomatoes everyday.
“When I told her I was going to send her home, she began screaming that, if her family found out she had come in, she would be beaten by her father,” Salah recalled.
According to Hayder Hussainy, a senior official at the health ministry, approximately 50 percent of Iraqi children suffer from some form of malnourishment. He added that 1 in 10 also suffered from chronic disease or illness.
“I pray that one day I’ll have one of those meals you see on television,” said Salua, describing a sumptuous repast of rice, salad, beans and meat.
“One day, God will give me this pleasure,” she added.
Children face daily violence
Sexual abuse is one of the most common dangers faced by children like Amir and Salua.
“Girls come first, suffering 70 percent of the abuses, while the remaining 30 percent of recorded cases are suffered by boys,” said the social affairs ministry’s Muhammad. She added that these figures applied to children under the age of 16.
Most cases are not reported to police, as parents are often afraid of being penalised for permitting their children to work on the streets.
Women for Peace, a local NGO devoted to women’s issues, believes that incidence of sexual abuse has increased in the last year, due mainly to the overall lack of security.
“We have at least one case of a girl raped per week and one boy every two weeks,” said Youssra Ali, a spokeswoman for the organisation. “The most worrying thing is that they’re afraid their fathers will kill them because of a perceived loss of honour.”
Beatings are also frequent.
“One time I pushed a man to buy gum from me,” recalled 11-year old Baker Hayder, who works the streets of the capital selling candy. “He got out of his car and hit me so hard with his shoe that I lost consciousness.”
“No one came to help me or asked what had happened,” he added. “But this is what I have to do to survive.”
Drugs ease the pain
In an effort to forget the traumas faced daily, many children on the street resort to illicit drugs.
“You just have to smell this powder and you feel much better,” said 14-year old Bassel Malek, who takes a daily dose of heroin to get by. “You don’t remember you’re hungry or that you have to go back home.”
Malek helps transport the drug in exchange for a daily hit: “I take the drug to another district and then go to work, well supplied with my powder of happiness,” he explained.
According to Kamel Ali, director of the health ministry’s drug-control programme, the number of registered heroin addicts in suburban Baghdad has more than doubled over the past year, rising from 3,000 in 2004 to a current 7,000.
“We’ve found that many children selling candy in the streets are using drugs, especially heroin,” said Ali. “When we alert them about the dangers, though, the only answer we get is: ‘If you were in our situation, you’d take it too.’”
The children’s plight is exacerbated by regular discrimination.
“People often think that street children should be excluded from society and don’t deserve to be treated like other children,” said Rabia’a.
Many Baghdad residents agree with this premise.
“I hate it when children come over to my car selling candy with their dirty hands,” said Najida Hadi, a resident of the capital. “I wish all of them would be put in a separate place from the rest of society.”
Some use violence to avoid the children, hitting them through the car window when they approach.
“Only we know how much it hurts,” said Amir, prince of the streets.