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We Are Failing a Generation of Iraqi Children

Iraqi children have been the victims of the country’s dire political situation even before the start of the war led by the U.S. The negative effects on children started with the harsh United Nations sanctions against the regime of Saddam Hussein, and were considerably aggravated by the war, whose consequences are still felt.

Even now, hardly a week passes in Iraq without signs of violence leaving both children and adults with permanent physical and mental scars. Experts such as Dr. Haithi Al Sady from the Psychological Research Center at Baghdad University have warned of the high number of children suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

PTSD can have devastating effects on children’s brains, negatively affecting their development. It can lead to a decrease in the area of the brain known as hippocampus, which is critical for memory processing and emotion. In addition, if not treated, PTSD can lead to a wide variety of mental health problems later in life.

Most Iraqi children with mental health problems will be untreated, since the number of child psychiatrists in the country is insufficient to deal with those who need assistance. Dr. Haidr al-Maliki, who was an army psychiatrist during Saddam Hussein’s regime, now works as a child psychiatrist at Ab Ibn Rushed Hospital in Baghdad. He is one of the very few remaining child psychiatrists in the country.

A UNICEF report, “Nowhere to Go,” details the effects of continuing violence on Iraqi children. According to this report, 5 million children out of a total child population of 20 million are in need of humanitarian assistance. One in five children have stunted growth and over 7 percent of children under 5-years-old suffer from wasting, a disease which causes muscle and fat tissue to “waste” away.

Children are exposed to heavy metals and neurotoxins resulting from bomb explosions and other ammunition, since those weapons affect not only those targeted but all those living nearby. In addition, contamination from Depleted Uranium and other military-related pollution is probably the cause of the rise in congenital birth defects and cancer. Mozhgan Savabieasfahani, an Iranian toxicologist, has found “alarming” levels of lead in the “baby” or “deciduous” teeth of Iraqi children with birth defects

War and continuing violence in the country have had a serious impact on children’s education. According to UNICEF studies, 3 million children do not attend school on a regular basis, and 1.2 million children are out of school. In addition, half of all schools in Iraq are in need of urgent repairs.

The water and sanitation infrastructure, damaged by heavy bombings and not yet repaired has led to a weakened health care system that puts children’s health and survival into jeopardy. At least 70 percent of displaced children (from a total 1.5 million displaced children) have missed a full year of school. Children with disabilities do not have access to education.

Between January 2014 and May 2017 1,075 children were killed and 1,130 were maimed or injured. In addition, 231 children were recruited into the fighting. Despite laws against child labor, large numbers of children are compelled to work to be able to fulfill their own basic needs and to help their families.

The US-British occupying forces and the Iraqi government have failed to fulfill their most basic duties towards the children of Iraq, in accordance with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Iraq, Great Britain and the US have signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child, although the US is the only stable country in the world that has not ratified it The other two countries are Somalia and South Sudan.

There is a moral imperative to help Iraqi children lead normal lives. The US-led war has caused tremendous damage to the public health infrastructure and to the social fabric in the country. Although the war against Iraq has ended, the ruthless attack against Iraqi children continues.

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Dr. Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of the 1979 Overseas Press Club of America award for the article “Missing or Disappeared in Argentina: The Desperate Search for Thousands of Abducted Victims.”

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