RFE/RL: You will soon be issuing a report on Iraq. Where in Iraq did you conduct your research?
Leila Billing: It was a piece of research with approximately 400 children from [Al-Basrah] and Al-Nasiriyah in the south of Iraq. And the research also involved talking to the children's families, to local community members, and also to people who work with vulnerable and marginalized children. It could be people who work for the state or for local child-protection organizations. This methodology is known as participatory research. And that involves using a whole host of research tools that the children kind of develop themselves. For example, there is a lot of role-playing and social-drama activities that the children do. There is a lot of drawing. The children are mapping out their daily lives on paper. And also training children to talk to their peers and act as researchers themselves. It's a very child-centered approach.
RFE/RL: What are the main problems of the children in Iraq, of those kids who were forced onto the street? What picture did you get from this survey of the status of children in the country at the moment?
"Boys and girls are engaging in sex work; they are selling weapons on the streets, alcohol, pornography. You know, children as young as eight are involved in these kinds of trades. Obviously, this results in increased stigmatization because the community brands them as 'bad children.'"
Billing: I think it showed the precise way that this conflict is impacting upon children. It's leading to the increased criminalization and stigmatization of children. For example, we are witnessing high levels of family breakdown and an increase of female-headed households in certain parts of Iraq. And basically what it means is that children are being forced to assume income-generating roles because their families are suffering from acute poverty. That means children leaving school, going out on to the streets and looking for paid work. And it's on the streets where many Iraqi children are being exposed to illegal livelihood activities. Say, for example, boys and girls are engaging in sex work; they are selling weapons on the streets, alcohol, pornography. You know, children as young as eight are involved in these kinds of trades. And it's kind of an economic necessity that is forcing them to do this. Obviously, this results in increased stigmatization of these children because the local community brands them as 'bad children.' And so, not only they are being impacted by poverty and are they being drawn into this criminal activities, they are also facing strong forms of social exclusion.
RFE/RL: So, children are forced onto the streets to earn a livelihood. But what do the families think about it? The families must see the problem as well as you see it, don't they?
Billing: Well, the families that we spoke to during the course of this research, some of them, or many of them, wish that they had another option. They wish that they did not have to put their children in this kind of position. But they feel that they have no other option but to do so because they are living a hand-to-mouth existence. But also other children we spoke to, their families have been the primary perpetrators of abuse against them. For example, we spoke to some young boys and girls whose parents or members of their extended families had actually forced them to engage in sex work. So the family as well as being a force that protects, can also be a force that causes extreme forms of abuse.
RFE/RL: Did you study only the lifestyle of these street children? Or did you go further in analyzing their behavior and the impact of the abuse they are living through?
Billing: Another interesting finding of the research was the psychological effect the conflict has had on them. These children were asked to rank their problems. And quite apart from poverty and family breakdown, they all mentioned terrorism and the lack of security in Iraq as one of their primary concerns.
Children in Baghdad watch as police secure the area following a car bombing in July 2006 (epa)
And I think what we are witnessing is -- the children, because they are surrounded by violence and insecurity on a daily basis, it's having an adverse effect on their own behavior and their own development psychologically. It's quite common for kids to be playing with guns. They demonstrate violent behavior on a daily basis because that's what they see all around them. And although it's not true for all children, I think for a large proportion it's having a really adverse effect on their psychological well being.
RFE/RL: This violent behavior of the kids, why do they manifest it? Does it give them the sense of security, is it for self-protection?
Billing: Yes, I think it's a way of protecting themselves. Quite a few of the kids that we spoke to, particularly the boys, the boys who were forced to engage in sex work, for example, they carry knives as a routine. And it's a way of protecting themselves. Some of them display quite aggressive behavior, again, as a kind of protection mechanism. They are trying to say: Look, don't mess with me; I'm capable of defending myself. But deep down, I think we are dealing with quite scared children. And this kind of behavior is an example or symptom of their fear.
RFE/RL: Are all the problems of the street kids common for both boys and girls? Or do girls have different problems?
Billing: Since the conflict started there has been an increase in the prevalence of mota (pleasure) marriages in Iraq. The muta'a marriages are mainly practiced by Shi'ite Muslims. Muta'a marriage is a marriage for a fixed period of time. It is also something that is called a temporary marriage. And what we are seeing is muta'a marriages on the increase, especially for young girls. Now, this could be, again, a livelihood strategy for poor families who give permission for their daughters to conduct a muta'a marriage, say, for a period of a month or two week, or even an hour, in fact. So, it's kind of a pretext for prostitution.
RFE/RL: Your NGO has existed since 1993, since the war in former Yugoslavia. I presume that those problems are more or less common for all countries at war. What should be done to save those kids?
Billing: I think getting the community involved is the first step -- as a way of trying to break down the stigma that these children have. I'd take the example of our work in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where we also work with a similar group of children, street children who were very marginalized, very stigmatized by the community. And what we are trying to do is increase the involvement of the community in the lives of these children. Because if the community is on board, you can really help to promote a protective environment for the children themselves. But I think the key to community involvement is reaching those community leaders or authority figures and using them as a way of mobilizing the rest of the population. And this could involve talking to an influential religious spokesperson. It could involve speaking to district councilors. This is something we've done involving the local mullah in our work with children in conflict with the law and getting him to talk about the need to break down the stigma against these kids in his sermons, in the preaching that he does to the local community. And that had a really positive impact.