Underage and Trapped: Female Iraqi Factory Workers

The labor law prohibits minors from working and stipulates that education is mandatory up to age 16. In these factories, young girls work tirelessly on assorting garbage before putting it into thermal and plastic cutting machines for recycling.

Saad al-Heli, the owner of a plastic waste recycling factory, told Al-Monitor, “Girls are more suitable [for this work] than boys, since they are more compliant.“

Fatimah, 16, told Al-Monitor, as she cleaned her face and hair from the plastic ooze coming from the machine, “I get paid $5 for about 6 hours of work.”

As all other girls there, Fatimah comes from a poor family and has never been to school. However, she prefers to work in this female-only factory, because she was a victim of sexual assault when she worked in a factory with men.

Fatimah refused to give details concerning the incident and she simply commented, “Working with men is risky,” referring to the incident.

This is probably why Heli does not hire boys to work with the girls in his factory. “They created many problems and the police had to interfere,” he said. But he seems fine with hiring underage girls, saying, “There is no real supervision and I make sure to treat them like my own daughters.”

Ghofran Majed, a local feminist activist, told Al-Monitor in the town of Babil: “Hiring uneducated young girls has serious social repercussions. … Field studies show that many working girls become victims of oppression and sexual harassment, which delays their marriage. Most of these young girls come from poor families that allow them to work because they need the money.”

Ferial Mhamdawi, 15, has been working in factories since she was a child. She got married at a very young age, probably two or three years ago (parents in these regions of Iraq marry their daughters off at age 11 or 12), but is now divorced and back at work.

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