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Naji is a porter in the markets in the southern Iraqi city of Basra. 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. They bring me clothes and gifts and sometimes give me cigarettes. In return I give them my company and the joy of sex. A 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 families with a total of around 1, 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. And there are an estimated one million displaced persons in the thriving southern province. 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 and his mother struggles alone.
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. 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. Ahmed also carries a knife around with him in a leather holster. 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. 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. At one stage, the local government planned a community policing initiative to try and help solve this problem and protect the children.