Two decades after the invasion of Iraq: what happened to the promise of an education for girls? | Global development
VSReturning home late at night as a young girl in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, then 15-year-old Zainab feared that every day would be the last time she could go at school. Living in a conservative district of Basra province, where women who go out alone in the evening are frowned upon, Zainab’s family was not happy about it. They also feared for his safety.
His school, like many in Iraq, had been forced to divide and rotate students into morning, afternoon and evening shifts because there were not enough buildings available to accommodate all the students at that time.
Late nights led to arguments with her family, but her parents’ faith in education, despite their illiteracy, enabled Zainab to complete her studies – but not in Iraq, as her family later left for the Jordan, fleeing conflict and instability.
“I was a smart and hardworking student. But in Iraq as in Jordan, I was always afraid of having to give up”, explains Zainab.
Other girls weren’t so lucky. UNICEF estimates that around 3.2 million Iraqi school-age children are out of school.
This is a far cry from the vision outlined by President George W Bush in March 2004, a year after the US invasion of Iraq. At the time, a new future of liberation and education for women and girls was part of the moral justification for the invasion.
“For women and girls, liberation has a special meaning. Some of these girls are going to school for the first time. It’s hard to imagine for Americans. Many young girls are now going to school,” Bush said in 2004, referring to Afghanistan and Iraq.
The education system had already been affected by a decade of sanctions and the three wars waged during the Baath era. In 2004, a study published by the Iraqi Ministry of Education and Unicef revealed that the education system lacked the basic elements necessary to provide children with an adequate education, especially girls, whose schooling was lower than that of boys at all levels.
It has not improved over the past two decades. Only 6% of the state budget has been allocated to education despite its importance for economic growth. For girls, education opens up new possibilities through career development or entrepreneurship, as well as the possibility for them to create more economic opportunities for others.
Girls are also at increased risk of dropping out of school as they progress through education, with one in 14 girls in Iraq aged 15-19 giving birth, according to estimates by the charity Save the Children.
In 2017, Iraq had the lowest female literacy rate (79.9%) in the region, below the world average of 83.3%. This is despite article 34 of the Iraqi constitution, which stipulates that primary education must be free and compulsory for all children.
However, international aid and investment is not the only problem, according to former students from before and after the invasion who spoke to the Guardian and Jummar, an independent Iraqi media platform.
The fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 did not mean that existing laws changed overnight. This includes a 1969 penal code that allows parents and teachers to “discipline children”.
The Ministry of Education has stipulated that the veil should not be compulsory in schools. However, Iraq’s 2005 constitution stipulates that Islam is the official state religion and should be the “fundamental source” of legislation.
Sometimes female students and some teachers share their experiences online using hashtags that highlight their oppression, such as “#educationalterrorism” and “#notothecompulsoryveil.”
Former students have also spoken of the role of ‘message spreaders’ – women affiliated with political parties or religious institutions who spread Islamic notions and urge young female students to wear the hijab.
Hadil, a teacher in one of Baghdad’s elementary schools, was prevented from using modern teaching methods in the classroom, such as playing music and songs, and was even assaulted and blackmailed by the police. family of a student because she reminded a child to wear a coat in winter.
“I was in big trouble and the teacher protection laws didn’t protect me. It’s just ink on paper,” says Hadil. “Teachers may also be under pressure to make certain students succeed, which affects the already deteriorated quality of teaching.” The post-2003 culture of corruption and nepotism enabled by the political class has encouraged these practices to spread to all institutions, she says, including schools.
“Educational institutions are connected and run by religious institutions. This is why, in the primary school where I work, I ask the children to say “long live Iraq” when I enter the classroom, rather than “long live Islam”, as they usually say “says Hadil.
“I always try to make a difference. It is a small attempt in the face of a whole system of outdated laws and customs, while worn-out institutions are destroying us all – students and teachers,” she says.