Naji is a porter in the markets in the southern Iraqi city of Basra. His job involves loading his heavy iron trolley with shoppers’ goods, then pushing them from the marketplace to the nearest taxi stand. Naji is a heavy smoker, addicted to both nicotine and narcotics – habits picked up when he first started working as a porter here. Looking tired, he says that these days he also works as a male prostitute.
Naji is 15 years old; he’s been working here since he was 12.
“The people I have sex with are generous and kind though,” Naji insists. “They are kind hearted and they love me. They bring me clothes and gifts and sometimes give me cigarettes. In return I give them my company and the joy of sex.”
A 2008 study undertaken by the well known Iraqi human rights organization, Al Amal (Hope), found that 72 percent of children of displaced families residing in Nasiriya, near Basra, were engaged in work inappropriate to their age, often more than seven hours per day, such as street cleaning and portering. The study, which surveyed 411 families with a total of around 1,200 children, also found that a lot of the child labourers were selling drugs or their own bodies.
Basra human rights activist, Sami Toman, believes that things are not that different in Basra. “That’s despite the fact that Basra is the richest city in the country with regard to resources and oil,” he added.
It is difficult to ascertain how widespread child prostitution is in Iraq – a lot of the children involved won’t talk about it because they have been threatened by those who use them. But observers believe child prostitution is particularly widespread among Iraq’s displaced families – that is, families who have been forced to flee to other areas due to sectarian or other violence in their hometowns. And there are an estimated one million displaced persons in the thriving southern province.
“Child abuse is a new phenomenon and it has emerged over the past three decades in Iraq, due to the abnormal circumstances here,” Toman explained. “And these children cannot escape the conditions their families live in. They’re victims of this disintegrating society. They’re doomed to a miserable life.”
Naji explains that he works as a prostitute so that he can provide for his family – he has three younger brothers, his father died in 2003 and his mother struggles alone. Often Naji will simply leave the house for work and won’t come back for days at a time – yet nobody seems to miss him.
“And when I return home, I come back with money. When they see the money they just take it and they don’t ask me where I got it from,” Naji adds.
And the teenager is not the only child working as a prostitute in the Basra markets. You can see plenty of other children, in ragged clothes, with dirty faces, touring the market place – some of them beg, others sell nylon bags and many fight over left over scraps of food.
One of Naji’s friends, Ahmed, is in a similar situation. The skinny 14-year-old, from a family that had to leave the Babel province during 2006’s violent sectarian conflict, sells himself for between US$5 and US$10.
The pair addresses each other as “mister” as though they were adults.
“When my father passed away, none of our relatives would help us. So I was forced to leave school and start working as a porter in this market,” Ahmed says.
Ahmed and his mother live in the slums that surround Basra city. Much of their neighbourhood is home to other displaced Iraqis, all of whom fled their homes in search of a better, more peaceful life and employment in oil-rich Basra.
The slums are known as Hawasem. It means “decisive” in Arabic and is the word that former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein used to use to describe the war he said he would fight against the US military. Now it’s used in an ironic way, to describe the slums and also a variety of illegal acts.
“We live in one room in a house that we share with three other families,” Ahmed relates. “My mother says I have to work every day and if I don’t get some money then I am not allowed to sleep inside the house.”
Ahmed also carries a knife around with him in a leather holster. “I need it because there are other young guys here who will try and take my spot in the market. It’s dangerous to move around the market at night,” he explains.
A lot of the scruffy children in the market are ill treated by more fortunate locals. But Ahmed and Naji are used to the verbal abuse. “We don’t care anymore,” Ahmed says. “Working as porters, we didn’t make enough money. And I need to bring my mother money every day.”
In Iraqi law penalties for anyone who sexually abuses children are severe, and can even amount to capital punishment. The child prostitutes themselves can also be arrested and incarcerated in special juvenile detention centres for long periods. However the law mostly isn’t applied.
“Although the law is very strict, there really is nobody to protect these children,” local legal expert and council member, Tariq al-Abarseem, notes. “The police don’t take their responsibility toward the children seriously, and they don’t apply the law.”
At one stage, the local government planned a community policing initiative to try and help solve this problem and protect the children. Similar schemes run in Baghdad and elsewhere around Iraq. However soon after the first community policing station opened in the Zubair district in February, it was closed again.
The community police has a role that sits somewhere between the ordinary citizen and the regular police; they were supposed to find neighbourhood solutions when there were problems between neighbours, tribal leaders and family groups. But they became unpopular in Basra almost immediately when they began asking about religious backgrounds and, according to locals, interfering in people’s private lives. In March, the community policing idea was abandoned.
Still, it does sound as though it would not have been too hard to do something about the child sex workers. According to merchants who work in the market everybody knows who the locals are, who are using the child prostitutes.
“But nobody wants to interfere because some of them are powerful people,” the owner of a store selling dairy foods told NIQASH. “And the government doesn’t want to take any action either.”
“Some of these people come here by car or by motorcycle. They take the children during the day and night to certain places, where they abuse them and use them for prostitution, for selling drugs or for stealing,” the store owner said. “Some of those people are dangerous. And,” he added, “there are also a bunch of local merchants who abuse the children. They talk about it when they’re sitting around together and they boast about the number of children they’ve abused.”
“I have a good relationship with a couple of the merchants in the market,” under-age prostitute Ahmed admits. “One of them takes me to his house and I stay there for one or two days. He sometimes brings his friends too. And he’s become a friend of my family.”
Lawyer al-Abarseem says that if someone is caught abusing children then the matter is usually settled in a tribal way, away from any official channels. “For example, a person was found guilty of child abuse in Zubair a few days ago. But the matter was solved in a tribal manner,” al-Abarseem says.
Although religious or political figures may get involved, usually the “tribal process” centres on mediation between the two conflicted parties by a family elder, or tribal leader. The mediator determines the facts of the case and works out what sort of reparation is suitable, according to tribal legal codes before enacting some kind of communal reconciliation. In the recent Zubair case, the abuser was forced to move away and pay money to the victim’s family.
The social welfare system has not managed to help the child prostitutes either. Social welfare payouts for a family of five work out to be around IQD120,000 (around US$100) per month.
All of which means that for the time being children like Naji and Ahmed will be forced to continue their unhappy work in Basra’s marketplace. Ask them about their thoughts on the future today and they’ll just tell you that, for the time being, they don’t think about the future.
The best they can do at the moment, they’ll tell you, is just to get through each day.