20 years since US-led invasion, the forgotten children and women of Iraq are struggling to rebuild their lives
Manar* at home with her daughters in a displacement camp in Duhok, Iraq [Nour Said/ Save the Children]
More photos available here.
ERBIL, Iraq, 20 March 2023 – About 1.2 million people in Iraq are internally displaced 20 years since the US-led invasion of Iraq, with limited access to education and health care, and some children forced to work on the streets to survive, said Save the Children.
Many people lost their homes or fear returning to their hometowns due to ongoing security tensions and explosive devices contamination, while the conflict and climate crises such as floods, rising temperatures, drought, and dust storms have destroyed their livelihoods.
Manar* has seven children aged from one to 13. Four of her children were born in a tent in a displacement camp in Duhok in northwest Iraq where the family has lived for seven years.
Manar* comes from a village in Sinjar about 180 kms away that was taken over by the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) and then later destroyed by airstrikes. She said:
“There have been so many times when my children were asking me for toys or food, and I cried because we couldn’t afford it. I was diagnosed with a breast disease and doctors advised me not to breastfeed my children, but I still do it because I can’t afford canned fortified milk. This has caused my little daughters to get ill.”
Manar* was able to open her own clothing shop in the camp with a Save the Children’s grant, but she said she hopes to leave the camp one day.
She said: “It is very hard to live here, in these conditions. I’m worried about their safety, about being unable to feed them, but I’m excited that today for the first time I was able to give one of my children money to buy sweets. Despite bad conditions here, we feel safer than living in Sinjar. There are so many armed groups in my hometown. We do not know who they are and where they came from.”
About 50% of all IDPs in Iraq are in Dohuk & Ninewa governorates with the United Nations saying there is no end in sight of the protracted displacement in Iraq where 4.1 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance – about 10 % of the population. The United Nations estimates nearly one-third of Iraq's 42 million people live in poverty.
Slow economic recovery post-conflict is causing families to resort to child labour as they run out of options to meet basic needs, disrupting children’s education and basic rights.
Zeinab*, 14, fled her home in Mosul and now lives in Kirkuk. She has four siblings but only one of them attends school.
She said: “Me and my siblings must work to cover our expenses, including attending school. My 10-year-old brother sells packs of tissues in the street to be able to go to school, even if we know that street vending is dangerous.”
Other children surveyed by Save the Children cited the distance from their home to school, or the lack of safety on the road as reasons for not attending class. Children who are out of education are more vulnerable to child labour and child marriage.
The 20 year of insecurity and limited economic opportunities have also played a heavy toll on Iraqi women.
Lama*, 27, a Yazidi mother of three from Sinjar, is the main breadwinner in her family. She was abducted by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) at the age of 18.
About 400,000 Yazidis – an ethnic and religious minority group – were captured, killed, or forced to flee from their ancestral homeland in Sinjar in August 2014 after ISIS crossed the border from Syria. Up to 3,000 women and young girls were abducted and subjected to rape and other forms of sexual violence. Many remain missing.
During the 12 days she was held captive, Lama* witnessed the killing of children and men and when freed she was displaced multiple times and unable to return to her village.
She said: “Everything is still entangled in my memory. When I close my eyes, I can see horrifying things. I see them in my dreams. We faced the most severe forms of torture. I still have anxiety attacks, and I suffer from depression and lack of self-esteem.
“During displacement, we faced many challenges, mainly related to the living conditions in the camps. We had no food and water, many children and elderly people died from thirst and hunger. Women and children were the most impacted by the crisis. Many of the women and girls who were displaced with me, had been either kidnapped, tortured or suffered sexual violence.”
Save the Children has helped Lama* open a hairdressing salon in Sinjar. Her husband hasn’t been able to find a job and their family is still facing economic challenges.
With the emergence of crises in other countries in the region, international funding for humanitarian assistance in Iraq has declined and is expected to fall further in coming years.
The 2021 Humanitarian Response Plan for Iraq only received 63% of the required 607.2m, and the funding level for the 2022 Humanitarian Response Plan barely reached 67% by end of December 2022.
Sarra Ghazi, Country Director at Save the Children Iraq, said:
“The world has forgotten about Iraqi children. We have seen humanitarian funding declining in Iraq and are worried that with the shift of the humanitarian focus to other crises, like Ukraine and the recent earthquakes in Syria and Türkiye, vulnerable displaced families in the country will continue to suffer.
“Iraqi women and children have shown remarkable resilience, but so much needs to be done so they can regain a sense of safety and hope. Much of the country’s infrastructure is still damaged or destroyed, and hundreds of thousands of children need assistance to access basic health care. Social cohesion and social inclusion must be key parts of the peacebuilding process in Iraq; we need to learn from the past and ensure that the current reconstruction efforts are lasting, and that children and women have a core role in Iraq’s recovery.”
Save the Children has worked in Iraq since 1991 and is implementing more than 15 projects in 8 governorates to provide protection and assistance to conflict affected families in the areas of child protection, education, water and sanitation, livelihoods and psychosocial support.
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