Childhood Is Dying

Despite the fact that US aggression towards Iraq since the 1991 Gulf War has killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children, the impact of the occupation on children has received little attention.

By Dahr Jamail and Ahmed Ali

With the fifth anniversary of the start of the United States’ occupation of Iraq approaching, Media Mouse is reprinting this article to highlight a perspective on the occupation that is often not considered and to encourage our readers to attend the antiwar march that will be held this Saturday, March 15, in downtown Grand Rapids at Heartside Park at 12:00pm. The march is hosted by ACTIVATE (Grand Rapids SDS).

Iraq’s children have been more gravely affected by the U.S. occupation than any other segment of the population.

The United Nations estimated that half a million Iraqi children died during more than 12 years of economic sanctions that preceded the U.S. invasion of March 2003, primarily as a result of malnutrition and disease.

But childhood malnutrition in Iraq has increased 9 percent since then, according to an Oxfam International report released last July.

A report from the non-governmental relief organisation Save the Children shows Iraq continues to have the highest mortality for children under five. Since the first Gulf War, this has increased 150 percent. It is estimated that one in eight children in Iraq dies before the fifth birthday: 122,000 children died in 2005 alone. Iraq has a population of about 25 million.

According to a UN Children’s Fund report released this month, “at least two million Iraqi children lack adequate nutrition, according to the World Food Programme assessment of food insecurity in 2006, and face a range of other threats including interrupted education, lack of immunisation services and diarrhoea diseases.”

IPS interviewed three children from different districts of Baquba, the capital city of Iraq’s volatile Diyala province, 40 km northeast of Baghdad.

Firas Muhsin is seven, and lives in Baquba with his mother. His father was killed two years ago by militants who shot him in his shop.

Firas attends school four hours every day near his house. On rare occasions he gets to play with neighbours’ children, but always under the eyes of his mother.

Firas is allowed to move no more than ten metres from the house; his mother is afraid of strangers. Kidnapping of Iraqi children is common now, and many are believed to have been sold as child labourers or as sex workers.

Iraqi officials and aid workers have recently expressed concern over the alarming rate at which children are disappearing countrywide in Iraq’s unstable environment.

Omar Khalif is vice-president of the Iraqi Families Association (IFA), an NGO established in 2004 to register cases of the missing and trafficked. He told reporters in January that on average at least two Iraqi children are sold by their parents every week. In addition, another four are reported missing every week.

“The numbers are alarming,” Khalif said. “There is an increase of 20 percent in the reported cases of missing children over a year.”

Firas spends hours each day sitting at the door looking at people. The door is his only outlet. In the afternoon, his mother calls him inside to do his homework. After dinner, his big hope is to watch cartoons — if there is electricity from their private generator.

The mother faces a shortage of kerosene needed just for heating. “My children feel cold and I cannot afford kerosene,” she told IPS.

Many children Firas’s age do not get to school at all. According to the UN, 17 percent of Iraqi children are permanently out of primary school, and an estimated 220,000 more are missing school because they and their families have been displaced. That adds up to 760,000 children out of primary school in 2006.

These are in-country figures, and do not include the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children and youth whose education is interrupted or ended because their families have fled to other countries. UNHCR estimates that at least 2.25 million Iraqis have fled their country.

Qusay Ameen is five, and lives with his mother, father, two sisters and a brother. His father was a sergeant in the former military, and is now unemployed. He receives a monthly pension of 110 dollars. He tries to support the family by selling cigarettes on the roadside. Qusay’s mother is a housekeeper. Qusay hopes to begin school next year when he turns six.

After breakfast, always something simple like fried tomato with bread, Qusay wants to play, but he has nothing to play with but a small broken plastic car his brother found near the neighbour’s door. He spends most of the morning playing with this car. He seems happiest when he gets to visit his neighbour’s house, because they have a swing in the garden.

Like most Iraqi children now, Qusay has grown used to being in need. He rarely gets sweets, or new clothes.

The family house is incredibly small — one bedroom and a place used as both kitchen and bathroom. Everyone sleeps in one room, which is extremely cold through the winter months. There are not enough beds or covering, and everyone has to sleep close together for warmth.

The house has few basic necessities, and of course no television or useful household appliances. There is a small kerosene cooker used for both cooking and heating.

According to the UN Children’s Fund, only 40 percent of children nationwide have access to safe drinking water, and only 20 percent of people outside Baghdad have a working sewerage service. About 75,000 children are among families living in temporary shelters.

Ali Mahmood, 6, has lived with his uncle in Baquba after his parents were killed by a mortar explosion two years ago in random shelling by militants. Next year he will join primary school near his uncle’s house.

Ali’s days are alike, and quiet. His only friends are his uncle’s children. When they go to school, he simply spends his time alone. It does seem the uncle’s family is not able to look after him as well as his own might have. His uncle Thamir is doing his best, but life is difficult, and Thamir has responsibility for a big family.

Ali is deprived of just about everything in childhood; he has no place to play, or things to play with. And he has nobody to think of his future.

And already, he has responsibilities waiting; he has been told he must take care of his younger brother when he grows up.

Firas, Qusay and Ali are all children, but none the way children should be.

Michigan Environmental Group Launches Toy Safety Website logo

The Ann Arbor, Michigan based Ecology Center has launched a new website called containing the results of tests on over 1,200 children’s toys. The toys were tested for toxic chemicals in response to widespread concern over the safety of children’s toys coming from China. The tests found that “some toys had high levels of chemicals such as lead, cadmium, and arsenic,” while only 28% did contain any lead, cadmium, arsenic, or PVC–all of which have been linked to health concerns or are restricted in some capacity by regulatory agencies.

While the website contains an online database to help parents purchasing toys for their children, it does also make it clear that the problem is a result of regulatory failures and that the problem cannot be solved simply by selectively purchasing toys. The group encourages people to contact their elected officials to demand that they restrict the use of toxic chemicals in toys. However, the watchdog group Public Citizen has argued that this might be difficult as World Trade Organization (WTO) rules make it difficult to inspect items coming into the United States, especially when it comes to dealing with “problem” countries.

Report: Michigan Failing to Meet Health Goals for Children

A new report has found that the state of Michigan is only meeting three of eighteen goals for children’s health and economic well-being and is making only minimal progress towards attaining the additional fourteen goals.

A new “Kids Count” report for 2007 offers a sobering assessment of the health and economic wellbeing of children living in the state of Michigan. The report, which was compiled by the Michigan League for Human Services and Michigan’s Children, concludes that Michigan has made “limited progress” and “will fail to meet many national standards for healthy children, families and neighborhoods” if more aggressive action is not taken. Michigan has met only three of eighteen goals identified by the Healthy People (HP) 2010 initiative aimed at improving the health of children across the nation and setting policy goals and has made only minimal progress on fourteen of eighteen indicators.

In meeting those three goals, Michigan immunized 80% of its toddlers, has a teen pregnancy rate of 23 per 1,000 teenagers compared to the goal of 43 per 1,000, and reported only 30% of its high school students being involved in a physical fight over the past year compared to a goal of 32%. However, the progress is overshadowed by many problems, particularly when it comes to race. Significant racial disparities remain, with African-American children being three times as likely as white children to live in poverty. Additionally, they have triple the rate of infant mortality and double the death rates for young and elementary age children, hospitalization for asthma, and low-birth weight.

Overall, Michigan made limited progress on most (14 out of 18) indicators. In the “Maternal/Infant” care area, Michigan met none of the goals and continues to be below the national goal in having prenatal care in the first trimester while exceeding the goals by having more preterm and low-birth weight babies along with a higher infant mortality rate. In the “Young Children” area, Michigan failed to meet the goals by substantial margins most areas–percentage of children with lead poisoning, child deaths ages 1-4, and hospitalization for asthma 0-4–while meeting the goal for fully immunized toddlers. With the exception of goals for teen pregnancies and physical fights, Michigan failed to meet goals in the “Adolescent” category including “vigorous exercise” and being “overweight.”

Numbers specific to Kent County show that 15.1% of children in Kent County live in poverty, which is less than the Michigan-wide number of 17%. This number has increased since 2000, an increase that was attributed to a shift from well-paying manufacturing to service industry jobs in the Grand Rapids Press. Infant mortality also increased in Kent County, reaching 8.2%. Almost a fourth of children in Kent County receive adequate pre-natal care. In addition to health indicators, the report places the average cost of childcare at $513 per month, or 16.4% of the average wage.

Profiles for other counties in West Michigan are also available online: Allegan, Barry, and Ottawa.

When Media Companies become Child Predators

It seems that about once every two weeks there is a story about an arrest of a man who was caught soliciting sex from someone under 18 online. Child predators have discovered that the Internet can be a tool to prey on children. Within the past few years the web resource MySpace has come to the attention of parents and law enforcement agencies since some child predators have used that site to target underage users.

Primarily men will often pose as another youth, develop cyber-relationships, and build trust with unsuspecting children. Once this trust has been developed the child predator will often invite the targeted child to a location so that they can be assaulted or kidnapped. I think that most people find this type of behavior reprehensible and the tactic of online deception unacceptable. However, sexual predators are not the only ones who use media to target children.

Since the 1980s there has been a significant shift in how media companies and advertisers view children. Children used to be seen as audiences of only toymakers, cartoon executives and fast food companies. These days, children as young as 6-months old are considered a target for what many companies call the development of brand loyalty.

In the late 1980s child psychologist James McNeal wrote the book Kids as Customers: A Handbook of Marketing to Children. The basic premise of McNeal’s book can be summed up in this quote, “Kids are the most unsophisticated of all consumers; they have the least and therefore want the most. Consequently, they are in a perfect position to be taken.” Children are in the perfect position to be taken? Does this seem remarkably similar to the thinking of online child predators?

Since McNeal wrote this book there has been a whole shift in how media companies and advertisers think about children. His framing of children primarily as customers has paved the way for an explosion in the ways that children are targetted by media companies. Mike Searles, President of Kids “R” Us says, “If you own this child at an early age, you can own this child for years to come. Companies are saying, Hey, I want to own the kid younger and younger.” Nancy Shalek, President of the Shalek Agency, has this to add, “Advertising at its best is making people feel that without the product you’re a loser. Kids are very sensitive to that. If you tell them to buy something, they are resistant. But if you tell them that they’ll be a dork of they don’t, you’ve got their attention. You open up emotional vulnerabilities, and it’s very easy to do with kids.” So how does this type of thinking play out in the media world?

At Fisher Price, there is a full time staff of seven people, several with advanced degrees in developmental psychology, who every year film 3,000 to 4,000 children while they take part in focus groups or one-on-one sessions to better understand how kids respond to their toys. They don’t just make toys, put it in a box, and set them on a shelf. Fisher Price and thousands of other companies are constantly working on ways to more effectively target your kids. In fact, media companies see the branding of your children as essential to long-term marketing. That is why Donna Sabino, editor of Nickelodeon magazine says, “What we are doing here is starting in the cradle marketing: A toddler goes from Nick Jr. to Nickelodeon to TEEnick to MTV to VHI to Nick at Night.” One way that Nickelodeon will do this is through licensing products like Sponge Bob Squarepants. They don’t just create and broadcast a cartoon character, they market a whole line of products based on characters. In 2005, Nickelodeon made $750 million from the sales of licensed Sponge Bob Squarepants merchandise. However, Nickelodeon’s licensing income paled, though, beside AOL-Time Warner ($6.6 billion) and Disney ($13 billion).

Then there are companies like Big Fat Inc. which hires youth to observe and spy on other youth in order to gather “intelligence” about what young people are wearing, eating, the music they listen to, etc. Two years ago media giant NewsCorp bought up primarily for the purposes on data mining. What better place to find information on what people do, think, and what their buying habits are. Sue MacDonald of Intelliseek in Ohio has made data mining the focus of her company’s work. In one day alone her company analyzed 475,000 individual blog posts to gauge what they had to say about products or individual companies.

The Kaiser Family Foundation recently conducted a study that looked at how food companies used TV commercials as a way of luring kids to their websites. The study found that “The vast majority (85%) of the leading food brands that target children on TV are also either directly targeting children on the Internet or providing online content likely to be of interest to them.” In addition the study found that “Almost two-thirds (64%) of sites in the study make use of viral marketing, in which children are encouraged to send emails to their friends about a product, transmitting the company’s marketing information to their peers. Embedded in these emails are news, activities and entertainment that are favorable to the brand.”

These tactics of targeting children are not just limited to media venues, but increasingly schools have become arenas to bombard kids with commercial messages. Lifetime Learning Systems – how’s that for an Orwellian name – helps companies target kids in school. Here is their little advertising pitch, “Kids spend 40% of each day in the classroom where traditional advertising can’t reach them. Now you can enter the classroom through custom-made learning materials created with your specific marketing objectives in mind. Communicate with young spenders directly and, through them, their teachers and families as well.” This translates into corporate “educational materials” that companies provide to schools for free, soda contracts, book covers, and the newest effort called BusRadio. BusRadio is a service that companies can now use to push commercial messages on your kids while they are held captive on school buses in the morning and after school.

Even video game creators and manufacturers have entered the arena of product placement and hyper-commercialism. More and more video games include the use of branded products as part of the game. Popular online multiplayer games such as “Lineage,” “Guild Wars” and “City of Heroes,” all have been inserting branded products into the game’s designs. Then there are what industry people called Advergames. Advergames are games that are produced by companies like Burger King with titles such as “Sneak King” and “Pocketbike Racer,” which were a big hit last summer’s gaming trade shows. Besides hyper-commercialism in video games, the industry is opposed to using the technology as an educational tool. A couple of years ago, Nancy MacIntyre, then LucasArts senior game director, complained about the original Star Wars game that “there was lots of reading, much to much, in the game. There was lots of wandering around learning about different abilities. We wanted more instant gratification: kill, get treasure, repeat.”

So what are we to make of all this? First, I think it is crucial that we teach kids to be critical thinkers when it comes to media. Parents, teachers and social workers should make it a priority to teach media literacy to children. Second, we all need to become more aware of how media works and what drives commercial media makers. Third, we can become watchdogs of media in our own communities. We should familiarize ourselves with the news agencies, places that show movies, radio stations, billboard companies, Internet service providers, and phone companies. Fourth, we need to be aware of the fact that these companies are constantly trying to push new legislation or deregulatory policies that are not in the best interest of the public. Lastly, we can support or make more of our own media. There are great websites, documentary makers, indie music labels, independent venues and a whole score of opportunities to make media that isn’t trying to sell us crap we don’t need or treat our children as customers for the taking.

Children Impacted by Immigration Raids

A new report from the National Council of La Raza and the Urban Institute titled “Paying the Price: The Impact of Immigration Raids on America’s Children” has found that stepped up raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are having profound effect on children. The study–which analyzes the effects of raids in Greeley, Colorado, Grand Island, Nebraska, and New Bedford, Massachusetts–calls for laws that will provide support for children affected by raids and improved social programs designed to assist children. According to the report:

  • For every two adults detained in immigration raids, a child is left behind.
  • Two thirds of these children are U.S. citizens, more than a third are under six years old, and nearly two thirds are under eleven.
  • Children face short- and long-term psychological damage when they are separated from one or both parents. This damage can include depression, post-traumatic stress, anxiety, feelings of abandonment, and suicidal thoughts.
  • An estimated 10% of people detained in raids face criminal charges, the majority of which are for false documentation.
  • Children also impacted economically due to loss of family income if one parent is detained.

For more on the topic, see “Paying the Price: The Impact of Immigration Raids on America’s Children.”

Ehlers Votes against Revised SCHIP Legislation

photo of vern ehlers

On Thursday, Grand Rapids area Representative Vern Ehlers voted against a revised version of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) legislation vetoed by President George W. Bush last month. Initially, Ehlers opposed Bush’s veto and voted in support of an earlier attempt to override the veto. However, Ehlers was the only Republican to change his vote, arguing that Democrats failed to get enough input from Republicans on the new version of the legislation. In the revised legislation, Democrats maintained their goal of insuring an additional ten million children while limiting program eligibility to 300% of the poverty line, restricting access for illegal immigrants, and trimming coverage for adults with no children. The bill passed the House by a vote of 265-142 but is twenty-five votes short of the 290 to override a promised veto.

Michigan Fails to Provide Adequate Tax Assistance for Child and Dependent Care

A new report by the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) found that Michigan is among the worst states in the country in terms of offering tax assistance to low-income families and individuals struggling to afford the high cost of child and dependent care. Michigan joined other midwest states including Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin in receiving a failing grade based on the NWLC’s evaluation.

According to new report by the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), Michigan is one of the worst states in the country in terms of offering tax assistance to those struggling to meet the high costs of child and dependent care. The NWLC’s quadrennial review of state assistance awarded “grades” to states based on an extensive evaluation of the tax policies of the forty-one states that collect income taxes. The review evaluated tax provisions based on the dollar value of each state’s tax provision, whether families that do not owe income tax can get assistance, whether the provision covers costs and provides assistance across income levels, indexing for inflation, coverage of child and adult dependents, whether the provisions encourage higher quality care, and how easy it is to understand the provision and how the provision is promoted. Based on this evaluation, Michigan was one of fourteen states that received a “failing grade” because it assesses personal income tax but offers no employment-related or dependent care tax provisions.

Since 2000, both childcare costs and the number of children in low-income families have increased, but the Congress has frozen federal funding for direct childcare assistance. Consequently, 250,000 fewer children are receiving child care assistance while the Bush administration’s 2007 recommended budget would further reduce expenditures for child care resulting in 400,000 children losing funding over the next five years. Child and dependent care costs vary but range from $3,000 to $13,000 per year, with families with incomes less than $18,000 spending an average of a quarter of their income on child care expenses. Aside from the high cost to families, many states and the federal government have reduced the number of people eligible for assistance and have cut back on reimbursement rates for child care providers, causing many child care providers that serve low-income children to make what the report termed “extraordinary sacrifices,” or as is more often the case, stop serving low-income children entirely. Funds to improve the quality of care by boosting childcare workers education levels and compensation have also been significantly reduced.

While funding on the national and state level threatens children, the NWLC does point to some successes in providing child care assistance through the tax system. There is currently a federal tax credit that provides up to $2,100 in tax assistance, yet its value is limited in that it is not refundable, so families with incomes so low that they do not pay income tax receive no benefits from the credit. As a result, campaigners have focused on improving state tax credits for child and dependent care expenses and counts as a victory improvement in tax provisions in 23 states over the past four years. The NWLC found that thirteen states now offer refundable credits for low-income families with limited state income tax liability. The improved tax policies are credited with helping reduce family tax bills and increasing refunds used to pay for childcare, thus allowing adult family members to remain employed.

Michigan’s failure to provide tax assistance for childcare stands in stark contrast to tax assistance offered by New York and Oregon, two states cited in the report as have the most helpful tax benefits for low-income families. New York offers a fully refundable credit worth up to $2,310 while Oregon’s refundable “Working Families Child Care Credit” does not have a dollar limit but instead operates on percentages. Under Oregon’s assistance plan, a family spending $6,000 on childcare expenses would be eligible for a credit of $2,400.

Stand For Children: Making a Commitment For Their Future

Reprinted from The FUNdamentalist (May 1996)

Every day in America 15 children are killed by firearms, 2,660 babies are born into poverty, 2,833 students drop out of school, and 8,493 children are reported abused or neglected. For a country that claims to love its own or embrace “family values”, the US ranks 18th in the world in infant mortality. The Children’s Defense Fund, an organization that for years has been defending the rights of children, has called for a national day of commitment to children.

On June 1, in Washington DC, there will be a day long event to call attention to the plight of children and to get communities organized arid energized to work in their communities on behalf of children. Stand For Children expects over 1,000,000 people to converge on the Lincoln Memorial to challenge the harsh policies of the current administration. Their brochure states that “if you are struggling to raise a child but know you could do better, come stand with us. If you are a young or middle-income family working hard to make ends meet, come stand with us. If you are troubled by the pollution of our airwaves, air, food, water, earth, and our children’s values, come stand with us. If you are worrying about whether your children’s schools are preparing them for the twenty-first century, come stand with us. If you are anxious that your children will get sick and not get decent medical care because you lack health insurance, come stand with us. If you are lying awake nights concerned about your children’s safety, come stand with us. If you have had enough of political leaders talking about family values while not supporting what families need to raise healthy, safe, moral, and educated children, come stand with us. ”

Locally a group has formed to coordinate travel plans. Two buses are already reserved and hope to be filled. We are also planning a send off rally for die people who will be making the trek to DC. If you want more information on the trip or what else the local group is organizing you can call the 4C’s office at 451-8281. The group here is intent on using the June!, event as a rallying point for efforts here in Grand Rapids for the long haul. Even if you can not attend the DC gathering or the local rally talk about this issue in your family, school, neighborhood, work place, and place of worship. For the present and the future, LETS STAND FOR CHILDREN!