Palestinian children in Gaza fetch water from a container.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Child labor has risen sharply in Gaza, where youngsters toiling in garages and on construction sites have become breadwinners for families feeling the brunt of the Palestinian enclave's 43 percent unemployment rate.
In the past five years, the number of working children between the ages of 10 and 17 has doubled to 9,700 in the territory, according to the Palestinian Bureau of Statistics.
The bureau said 2,900 of those children are below the legal employment age of 15.
Economists in the narrow coastal strip, home to 1.9 million Palestinians, estimate the real number of underage workers could be twice as high.
The increase in Gaza goes against trends. The International Labour Organization says the worldwide number of children in labor has fallen by a third since 2000, from 246 million to 168 million, with more than a fifth in sub-Saharan Africa.
At one garage in downtown Gaza, 16-year-old Mahmoud Yazji and another boy, aged 12, work nine hours a day.
Mahmoud said he earns the equivalent of $13 a week; the younger boy takes home half of that.
"I work to help him (my father) earn a living. My brother also works to help him. The situation is not good. We don't have money to pay to paint our home and not even to buy a ball. We don't have anything. My salary is not enough," Mahmoud said.
"At the beginning it is hard work, but later, after we learn, it becomes easy," he added.
A devastating 2014 war between Palestinian militants and Israel, border restrictions imposed by Israel and Egypt and the destruction of cross-border smuggling tunnels by an Egyptian government at odds with Gaza's Hamas rulers have contributed to economic hardship in the territory.
The United Nations estimates that 80 percent of the population is aid dependent, with unemployment rising to its current level from around 35 percent five years ago.
"It is tiring, but I am forced to work to help my family. My dad is sick and he can't come. He doesn't have a salary and he cannot move. I am the oldest and I work to feed my family," said teenager Mahmoud al-Kahlout who works in a furniture workshop.
"I wish to live in freedom, to get an education like other children and to go to school everyday. To be like every other child who goes to school. And to play soccer with my friends," Mahmoud added.
A Dutch-funded organization, El-Wedad Society for Community Rehabilitation, has been running a project for three years aimed at convincing families in Gaza of the importance of returning working children to the classroom.
"The case of child labor has started to be worrying, it has evidently increased in the last period. It may not be a surprise because of the situation in Gaza which is under blockade that has led to unemployment and poverty," said Naeem al-Ghalban, who heads the society.
Its representatives visit the homes of working children they meet on the street and invite them to guidance sessions at the organizations headquarters.
Children are taken for visits to Gaza's colleges to show them what could lie ahead if they go back to school.
"We feel children's rights are being trampled on. And these children who should build up a society may instead become criminals or beggars and be used by bad people to work in the street," he said.
Ghalban said that over the past three years, some 50 working children have taken up their studies again as a result of the organization efforts.