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Too poor to go to school
6 June 2003
ERBIL, 6 June (IRIN) - Having dropped out of primary school six months ago, Tawana Umar is adamant that he does not wish to return. "I cannot go back to school, because we are too poor," says the 11-year-old. "I have to work to help my family. If I don't help them who will?"
Each day, between 07:00 and 17:00, Tawana weaves through the bustling traffic and throngs of pedestrians in central Erbil to sell packets of chewing gum. "When it gets too hot during the day, I find a place to sleep for a couple of hours. But I don't make much, because there are many boys selling the same thing. The little money I make, I give to my father," he told IRIN.
Disturbing as Tawana's story is, it is unremarkable among those of the hundreds of children working on the streets of the northern city of Erbil.
Nine-year-old Shafiq tells a similar story. Both his parents are unemployed, and the only income his family has is the paltry salary his older brother earns as a waiter in a nearby café. But, unlike Tawana, Shafiq attends school in the morning and works as a shoe cleaner during the afternoon. "I would like to be a teacher when I grow up. I think that is the best job to have," he says.
According to a survey done by the Iraqi Kurdistan Research project in 2000, most working children aged between six and 18 years work throughout the year. Of 4,327 children interviewed across the Kurdish-administered northern territory, 71 percent said they did not attend school. On average, they dropped out at the age of 11 years, or Grade 5.
Humanitarian groups say mounting poverty among the urban poor is the main reason why families feel the need to send their children to work, instead of keeping them at school.
"In most cases, families have no other option. Decades of political instability in the region has had a dramatic effect on the economy, which in turn has seriously impacted on the living conditions of families and entire communities. Children are seen as an integral part of enhancing the family's income," Veronica Avati, a United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) child protection officer in Erbil, told IRIN.
But whereas poverty was seen as the driving force behind child labour, Kurdistan Save the Children (KSC)-Erbil said some of the children did not have the necessary identity papers needed for enrolment at schools.
"Many of the children of IDPs [internally displaced persons] living in the collective towns have been moving from one town to another, and have not registered their children or have lost the papers. This had posed a big obstacle in trying to get these children into school," said the KSC-Erbil co-director, Narin Abd al-Qadir.
As part of an ongoing effort to coax working children back to school, UNICEF in 2001 established the Zheel (Life) Centre. Located in the middle of Erbil city, the centre is open daily between 09:00 and 16:00. Apart from being taught the mainstream subjects such as mathematics and science, children are given vocational training. The centre also provides the children with lunch, and a trained psychiatrist visits at least twice a week.
"The fundamental difference is that the centre acknowledges that these children cannot abandon their jobs. In fact, when approached, many parents were reluctant to enrol their children for fear that it would mean that much-needed income would be lost. The centre accommodates this, and training is scheduled to suit the children's needs," Avati said.
She added that the objective of the programme was to rehabilitate the children, many of whom lack self-esteem, and eventually reintegrate them into the educational system.
Another concern raised by UNICEF and other child rights NGOs was the need to modernise the juvenile justice system. UNICEF said plans were under way to impress upon local authorities the importance of providing formal and vocational training in reformatories. However, the agency noted that both technical and practical support was needed to adequately deal with the shortcomings of the current system.
"In some cases, it is just matter of time before some of the children who are at risk fall into criminal activities because of their desperate situation," Abd al-Qadir told IRIN.
For the girl-child, however, the picture is even gloomier.
Recent studies show that male enrolment at schools far outnumbers that of girls. Between 1998 and 1999, 31 percent more boys than girls were enrolled in primary schools.
A UNICEF survey in 2000 showed that even if a boy performed badly at school, he would be allowed to continue his education. The same, however, did not apply to girls, who were taken out of school irrespective of their performance.
"It is unlikely that you would find a young girl working in public. Many of them who cannot go to school stay indoors or work with their mothers or female relatives. It is hard to access these girls, as it is an extremely sensitive issue," said Avati.
But the overarching problem is the lack of proper educational facilities for children in both rural and urban areas.
A United Nations report in 2002 suggested that while local authorities had in the last five years spent nearly US $92 million on improving the educational system, most of the money was spent on infrastructure repairs, at the expense of teacher training, textbooks and other facilities.
IRIN-Asia, Tel: +92-51-2211451, Fax: +92-51-2292918, Email: IrinAsia@irin.org.pk
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