Reem loved English and chemistry. The Iraqi schoolgirl dreamed of becoming a petroleum engineer. She was on track to achieving her goals when her cousin asked for her hand in marriage. She was 16.
“I didn’t really want to get married and my family didn’t force me, so I initially said no,” she said. “But it’s the culture here, when your cousin asks you to marry, it’s embarrassing to say ‘no,’ and after he asked me a few times, I said yes—with the condition that I would stay in school.”
After the wedding, though, her husband and his family forced her to drop out. When Islamic State militants invaded Anbar Governorate in 2014 and forced the family to flee to a camp, Reem tried to restart her education. Her husband and his family again forced her to drop out.
Frustrated, she left her husband and returned to her parents’ home, studying at night to make up for lost time. But when the coronavirus pandemic hit, her attempts to get an education were interrupted for the third time.
Reem’s experience is not uncommon in Iraq, aid officials and researchers say. Here, interruptions and barriers to schooling are more the rule than the exception. War, displacement, poverty, child labor and child marriage are part of many children’s stories. And now Covid-19 is adding another chapter.
“I’m sorry that the pandemic has disrupted formal education structures globally, but in Iraq, it’s millions of children who have already lost years of schooling,” said Yousra Hassan, an education specialist with the Norwegian Refugee Council in Iraq. “Millions of children were caught up in the conflict and 3.2 million Iraqi children lost three or more years of schooling.” Students could barely recover that amount of schooling, she said. “Now it’s more difficult than ever.”
Many Factors Boost Child Marriage
From 1970 until 1984, the Iraqi education system was one of the most advanced in the region, marked by high enrollment and literacy levels, low dropout rates and near gender parity, according to the Iraqi Alliance for Education.
However, the system began a slow decline after Iraq began reducing levels of education funding in the mid-1980s. Then in 2003, the U.S.-led invasion toppled Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and set off internecine conflicts that plague Iraq almost two decades later. Those escalated to a civil war in 2014, creating an opening for Islamic State to take over about 40 percent of the country. The group was mostly defeated by December 2017 in Iraq, and in Syria a year later.