IRAQ — “Child labor” refers to work carried out by children that inflicts moral, mental, physical or social harm upon them. This work robs children of educational opportunities, and in its harshest manifestations may cause lifelong trauma. As a result of decades of conflict and crisis throughout Iraq, thousands of children, many of whom are displaced, are forced into labor. However, with international cooperation, the Iraqi national and Kurdistan Region governments are pursuing strategies to eliminate child labor within their borders. Here are 10 facts about child labor in Iraq and some measures taken to address it.
10 Facts About Child Labor in Iraq
- Iraq has a large young population. An estimated 37.71 percent of the Iraqi population consists of children ages 14 and younger. The next youngest age group makes up 19.77 percent of the population and is comprised of adolescents and young adults between ages 15 and 24. An estimated 57.48 percent of the population are ages 24 or below.
- Nearly ten percent of Iraqi children work. Approximately 5.3 percent of children between ages five and 14 work without receiving any education. Iraqi children between ages seven and 14 who work while receiving an education constitute approximately 4.2 percent of that age demographic.
- Failing infrastructure hinders educational access. At least 50 percent of central Iraq’s public schools suffer from poorly-maintained and decaying infrastructure that fails to satisfy national standards. The Iraq War, which began in 2003, proved particularly ruinous to academic infrastructure. In the disarray resulting from long-term conflict, schools suffered from a deficit of resources, leading to high drop-out and grade repetition rates among students. Students from lower economic families are more likely to endure negative educational outcomes.
- Several economic sectors employ children. Labor sectors that employ Iraqi children include agriculture, industry and the service sector. Iraqi children farm, herd livestock, fish, work in construction and carpentry, labor in factories. They also sell and beg, work at gas stations and auto repair shops, work in hotels and restaurants and at cemeteries. Some forms of child labor in Iraq are quite brutal, often involving human trafficking. The harshest forms of child labor include weapons and drug trafficking, domestic service, compelled begging and even sexual exploitation and induction into paramilitary groups.
- ISIS abducted boys into militias. Children from ethnic and religious minority backgrounds are already marginalized and often displaced. They experienced heightened vulnerability to abductions by ISIS. ISIS abductors drugged captured children with amphetamines to suppress their fear of injury and death, intending to turn them into pliable and disposable militia members. ISIS exploited child captives, including the mentally disabled and those as young as eight years old, as bomb makers, executioners, human shields, informants and even suicide bombers. Liberated child soldiers now suffer psychological trauma as a result.
- ISIS abducted girls into domestic and sexual servitude. ISIS kidnapped young girls into servitude. The fates of these girls frequently entailed compelled domestic labor, forced marriage, forced conversion and sexual assault. Human rights advocacy groups often classify the condition of captive girls trafficked by ISIS as a form of slavery. As with young boys abducted into militias, young girls trafficked by ISIS tended to come from marginalized ethnic and religious minorities such as the Yazidis.
- Shi’a militias abduct children as well. Induction of children into militias is also a tactic reportedly employed by Shi’a militant groups. Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba (HHN) and Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), two Shi’a militias supported by Iran, have mobilized Iraqi boys in the ongoing Syria and Yemen conflicts. They have even inducted child soldiers directly out of schools. Although no indication exists of child soldier recruitment in the Iraqi military itself, some Shi’a militias forces are legally incorporated into the nation’s military.
- Iraq fails to live up to international conventions on child labor. Iraq has signed all major international conventions dealing with child labor. It has enacted child labor legislation and regulations, but child labor remains a huge issue. Notably, its current laws prohibiting child trafficking do not satisfy the injunctions of that international convention although Iraq has ratified the Palermo Protocol on Trafficking in Persons.
- The Kurdistan Region had greater success in conforming to international conventions. Although the Iraqi national government’s legislation and regulations currently fail to satisfy international standards regarding child labor, the Kurdistan Region government’s 1987 Labor Law is satisfactory in this regard. A similar enforcement gap between the Iraqi national and Kurdistan Region governments exists regarding compulsory education age laws. Neither government conforms well to international conventions prohibiting military recruitment by non-state militant groups.
- The Child Protection Policy was passed in 2017. With assistance from the American University of Beirut and supervision from UNICEF, the Iraqi Child Welfare Commission enacted the Child Protection Policy in 2017. United Nations organizations and representatives of Iraq’s constituent communities created the policy to safeguard Iraqi children from abuse. The scope of the policy extends to suppressing child labor and providing children with educational resources and opportunities. Moreover, the policy seeks rehabilitation and reintegration of children abducted and pressed into brutal forms of labor.
Child labor remains a pressing problem in Iraq, exacerbated by government weakness and crumbling infrastructure. For those children liberated from forced conscription, domestic servitude and sexual exploitation, rehabilitation is as imperative as deterrence. Nevertheless, with global assistance and input from the citizenry, Iraq may soon overcome the child labor problem so that all the nation’s children live with dignity.
– Philip Daniel Glass