MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) — Isaq Abdi works 15-hour days as the right-hand boy of a Somali woman who sells the narcotic leaf khat. Abdi tends the kiosk and delivers the mild stimulant to customers.
At day's end, the homeless boy receives his reward: A handful of chewed sticks that his customers throw away. He rebundles the best and sells them to Mogadishu's poor, earning less than a $1 to help care for his younger sister and their mother.
Children in Somalia have long suffered from poverty and war. Very few are lucky enough to go to school.
Last week Somali leaders voted in a new provisional constitution that greatly expands the rights afforded to children. It bars child labor and protects children from neglect and abuse. It outlaws the use of child soldiers and bans child marriage. It says every child has the right to care from their parents, and that every person in Somalia has the right to free education until secondary school.
Despite leaders' good intentions in the expansion of protections for children, most of the new rights will remain distant dreams for children like Abdi, who is only 10 years old. The impoverished, fledgling government controls only Mogadishu and its surroundings, and is unable to provide basic services.
"Survival is my priority. Any extra shillings will go to my family," Abdi said, sprinkling water on cotton khat sacks to prepare the kiosk before the khat is brought by his employer.
"But there is no guarantee of earnings every day. Sometimes I survive by one piece of bread for the entire day," he said.
Though violence is decreasing in Mogadishu's capital, the number of street children has grown over the last year. Tens of thousands of families who fled famine in the countryside last year now live in the capital as refugees. Many of the families are poor, and because their kids aren't going to school and have no money, the children often wind up on the streets.
Because widespread violence has lasted more than 20 years in Somalia, the country now has nearly an entire generation of people who received little or no education. The U.N. children's agency, UNICEF, says Somalia has one of the lowest primary school enrollment rates in the world.
"Although no specific statistics are available on the numbers of working children and children living in the street, the figures have been increasing across Somalia and particularly in Mogadishu," said Ban K. Al-Dhayi, a spokesman for UNICEF.
If Somalia's government were stronger, more organized and better funded, children like Ali Abdinasir would be sitting in classrooms, in accordance with the constitution. All the new rights the document affords children like Ali may go over most of their heads. The 11-year-old held out a child's hope of how the constitution might benefit him: "Cleaner playgrounds," he said.
One of the more than 600 Somali elders who voted to pass the new constitution last week acknowledged that writing the words on paper is easier than enforcing the promised rights in the real world. Dahir Abdulqadir Muse, though, said he hopes the constitution helps lower the number of child soldiers in Somalia.
"Our children have suffered a lot because of a lack of legislation," said Muse, a member of Somalia's parliament.
Efforts to protect children don't extend into areas still controlled by the Islamist militant group al-Shabab, which is known for recruiting young teens who are often forced to fight on the front lines of battle. Al-Shabab no longer controls any part of Mogadishu but has wide influence across south-central Somalia.
For kids like Abdi, the khat seller, warfare is not a problem anymore. It's hunger.
"Life would be better if we could go to school or get a better job," he said.
Straziuso reported from Nairobi, Kenya.