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Iraq's neglected children

UNICEF: 1 in 5 Iraqi children are currently at a “serious risk of death, injury, sexual violence, abduction and recruitment into armed groups”

Up to 50 per cent of Iraq's population is under 19 years old, according to the United Nations Development Programme. The population is getting younger. Under 19s in Iraq, those born after 1997, would have been at most six when the US-led coalition invaded the country, their earliest memories are clouded by war, violence and destruction. In the 13 years after the invasion, peace has been a word missing from the Iraqi vocabulary. According to a study by the Lancet, approximately one million innocent Iraqi civilians have died as a direct consequence of the war. This violence is rapidly on the rise and the Iraqi Body Count states that civilian deaths have doubled year-on-year. Last month saw the largest act of terror in Baghdad since the start of the war, with over 300 innocent lives lost in one day. The significant impact this is having on Iraq's younger generation is sadly overlooked.

Iraq has a population of 33 million. Of these, according to a UNICEF report published last month, 3.6 million children, 1 in 5, are currently at a "serious risk of death, injury, sexual violence, abduction and recruitment into armed groups". A third of all of Iraq's children, 4.7 million, are currently in need of humanitarian assistance. That is not to mention the rest living in constant fear of unexpected bombings throughout the country, confining children to playing indoors. This continual interaction with violence has resulted in a limitation in their imagination. In the markets the majority of children's toys for sale are weapons; replica AK-47s or grenades. It is impossible in Iraq to walk more than five minutes without coming across an actual AK-47 or a poster showing someone carrying one, so it is unsurprising that children want to play with them. Ayman Al-Amiri, a 21-year-old photographer, recalled how on more than one occasion when he was 12 he would see dead bodies on his morning commute to school. He explained how after that moment all his future dreams ended and the fear of sectarianism entered into his mind for the first time. The question does arise; will such a pre-occupation with violence in childhood result in violent habits when older?

The impact of direct violence on children as they grow up has been thoroughly documented in medical journals. A severe impact on long-term mental health has been highlighted secondary to violence, including post-traumatic stress disorder, victimisation, depression and bedwetting. Despite the known issues and the high demand for treating childhood psychiatric conditions, there is a severe lack of psychiatrists in Iraq with only nearly 100 qualified mental health doctors available in the country. This leaves limited hope for the future of the many children affected by violence.

In the 13 years since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraq has never passed through a period of prolonged peace. Moreover, secondary to constant governmental failings and episodes of corruption, faith in the Iraqi government is at an all-time low. Some 79 per cent of Iraqi's surveyed by Gallup believed the Iraqi government is plagued by corruption. The result of such opinions is that many Iraqi's have begun to act as if no government exists. One doctor explained, since the US-led invasion, "the majority of Iraqi's have understood democracy as taking the law into your own hands." Therefore, minimal respect for law is noted within Iraq.

Furthermore, should any crime or local disagreements arise, Iraqis are now no longer turning to the authorities for settlement but using a system of tribal justice where settlements are achieved through coercion, violence or money. Hayder Al-Mohammad, associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, writes how the people of Iraq now proudly describe the tribal system in his journal article "You have car insurance, we have tribes."

Older Iraqis remember a time when a state existed, when laws and policies were abided by. However, the new generation, since the US-led invasion, have never lived through a system where respecting the law and the government exists. As these children grow into adults, Iraq is likely to fall into further anarchy.

One organisation, The House of Hope, headed by Hisham Al-Dhahaby, has been set up to look after the orphans of Baghdad. Where most orphanages are called "Orphan Homes" in Baghdad, Al-Dhahaby refuses to call the children orphans, in order to fully integrate them into society and prevent a victim mentality.

Al-Dhahaby said his biggest fear about the children's future is "their preoccupation with violence and weapons scares me."

"Children are the weakest members of our society; they have been recruited by Al-Qaeda, ISIS and other groups to fight their wars. This is why we have to focus on the future of the country by focussing on our children," he explained using another acronym for Daesh.

Nelson Mandela once famously said: "There can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children." Sadly, the children of Iraq are being neglected. Their potential is slowly being destroyed and Iraq is likely to see itself go through worse times before any kind of improvement occurs.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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