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In Iraq, War and Marriage Are Frequent Obstacles to Education

/ 12 Nov 2020

In Iraq, War and Marriage Are Frequent Obstacles to Education

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.

Actors perform a skit for displaced people at the Daquq Camp in Kirkuk, Iraq. Nearly half of school-age internally displaced children in Iraq are out of school, and one-third of all Syrian refugee children are. (Photo: Mahmoud Al-Najjar/ARA Network).
Actors perform a skit for displaced people at the Daquq Camp in Kirkuk, Iraq. Nearly half of school-age internally displaced children in Iraq are out of school, and one-third of all Syrian refugee children are. (Photo: Mahmoud Al-Najjar/ARA Network).

In the Islamic State years, poverty rose dramatically. For example, between 2013 and 2016, falling oil prices and instability led gross domestic product and employment to decline sharply, even as Iraq developed a youth bulge—60 percent of the population today is under 25, with most youth neither in education nor employed.

And the education system, already in decline, fell apart. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of refugees poured in from Syria and elsewhere, joining millions of internally displaced Iraqis, all of whom faced violence. Risks for children, such as being forced into child trafficking, being recruited as child soldiers, and suffering maiming or death, went up. Girls were especially at risk for sexual violence and forced marriage to militants.

All the elements were in place for a spike in child brides, aid officials say.

In 1997, 15 percent of Iraqi women married before the age of 18, according to government statistics. By 2018, the rates rose again—28 percent of women under 18 were married, while 7 percent of those under 15 did.

Now aid officials and researchers are concerned about another spike due to the coronavirus lockdowns that closed schools and halted aid programs for children. It’s too early to accurately measure an increase, researchers note, especially because access to many regions and camps has been cut off. But Hassan says, “The usual trends indicate there would be increases as the lockdowns, the uncertainty and the economic pressures increase, while the scarcity of livelihood opportunities continues.”

A rapid assessment conducted this past spring pointed to an increase: In interviews in 11 of Iraq’s 19 governorates, 13 percent of respondents reported an increase in child marriage, an increase of 5 percent over a similar assessment late last year.

Enrollment in School Is an Exception

Before the pandemic, the issues facing children already included closed schools and more—half of all schools need repairs and 7,000 more need to be built to accommodate every student. Currently, 29 percent of formal schools run double shifts and 4 percent run triple shifts to accommodate students, noted Save the Children. Meanwhile, student-teacher ratios average one teacher per 122 students; students lack textbooks and toilets; and children learn an average of 1.5 to 2.5 hours a day, according to an assessment by the Education Consortium of Iraq in February that surveyed six governorates.

Enrollment in primary and secondary schools is low for both boys and girls. More than three million children do not have access to regular classes—all in all, 21 percent of all children of school age are not in school. In some conflict-affected governorates such as Salah al-Din and Diyala, more than 90 percent of school-age children are excluded from education, says Unicef in a 2017 report.

After the coronavirus lockdowns closed schools and halted aid programs for children, aid officials and researchers are concerned that conditions are ripe again for another spike in child marriages.

Meanwhile, nearly half (355,000) of school-age children in the displaced population in Iraq remain out of school, according to a U.N. report released in February, while one-third of all Syrian refugee children were.

For females, the situation is worse: In Iraq, girls stay in school only until the age of 10 on average, according to the Save the Children.

Still, a household survey by Unicef, known as a multiple indicator cluster survey, found that female primary completion rates for primary, lower secondary and upper secondary education are 73 percent, 47 percent, and 43 percent, respectively.

Meanwhile, 24 percent of  Iraqi women are illiterate, compared to 11 percent of all men, according to a September 2020 report by the World Bank, “Breaking Out of Fragility: A Country Economic Memorandum for Diversification and Growth in Iraq.”

Iraqi education data show that the number of students enrolled starts to steeply decline after grade 6. The top five reasons cited by Iraqis interviewed by the Norwegian humanitarian group are costs, child labor, child marriage, having missed school for more than two years, and a lack of proper identification documents.

‘Stateless’ and Excluded

The most vulnerable in Iraq are the 1.4 million internally displaced people, the 4.6 million returnees still trying to get resettled, and about 250,000 Syrian refugees, most of whom have been living in or around camps and informal settlements for more than three years, say aid officials.

All these groups as well as some non-displaced Iraqis have long been grappling with substandard living conditions due to infrastructure damage, a lack of services and poor employment opportunities. Many also continue to face violence.

But the biggest issue for many is that they can’t prove who they are.

When Islamic State was in control, the armed group usually confiscated state-issued identification papers and issued its own. The Iraqi government, however, has never accepted these documents—even having one can put Iraqis at risk of arrest.

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As a result, millions of Iraqis are missing the documentation necessary to access school, healthcare and employment, being able to travel out of their area, or receive aid. Those who lack papers are suspected of having been associated with the Islamic State.

And it’s nearly impossible to get new papers due to the backlog, the bureaucracy, and the bribery sometimes necessary, says a recent report by the Norwegian group, “Barriers From Birth: Undocumented Children in Iraq Sentenced to a Life on the Margins

For adults, the critical issue is being unable to earn or receive aid. For children—one in five of those displaced lacks documentation—it means they can’t enroll in school. For everyone, it also means looking for other ways to survive.

Noor, who lives in Hamam Al-Alil camp in the Nineveh governorate with her three children, told the Norwegian nonprofit she’s struggling to survive without identification. She lost it after fleeing the fighting in Mosul. When she tries to leave the camp, officers ask, “Maybe you or your daughter are not Iraqi?”

The University of Mosul was in rubble after Islamic State’s three years of occupation ended in 2017. Elsewhere across Iraq, half of all schools need repairs and 7,000 more need to be built, U.N. officials say (Photo: Aws Ibrahim/ARA Network).
The University of Mosul was in rubble after Islamic State’s three years of occupation ended in 2017. Elsewhere across Iraq, half of all schools need repairs and 7,000 more need to be built, U.N. officials say (Photo: Aws Ibrahim/ARA Network).

And when she tries to get food and other necessities, it’s often futile: “I’m asked for my ID during food distributions. … When I say I don’t have it, I’m the last one to receive items and sometimes, there is nothing left.”

Meanwhile, her 4-year-old daughter also lacks identification, which will probably keep her out of school.

From Dire to Disastrous

When the schools closed as lockdowns were imposed, thousands more children in camps and out were shut out of education, often due to a lack of an Internet connection, an electricity supply, digital devices and a familiarity with technology.

As a result, about 83 percent of children surveyed at a camp for the displaced received no schooling after the schools were shut down, according to the Norwegian group.

“We need to—now—find innovative and safe ways for education to be back on track in spite of a lot of uncertainty presented by the current situation.”

Yousra Hassan   An education specialist with the Norwegian Refugee Council in Iraq

Now the worry is, What comes next?

Researchers and aid officials note that many schools that had been closed temporarily in the past decade to accommodate refugees or because of attack. When schools reopened, the children often didn’t return, sometimes because of child labor and child marriage. Aid officials are worried that will happen again.

“We need to—now—find innovative and safe ways for education to be back on track in spite of a lot of uncertainty presented by the current situation,” said Hassan. “Because usually the longer a child stays out of education, the less ability the child has to go back.”

Determined to Graduate

Reem is determined to be one of the exceptions.

When she returned to her parents’ home after leaving her husband, there wasn’t enough money for her to study. Her father came up with a solution: He would trade his labor in exchange for a teacher to work with Reem to catch her up so she could take the national exam to go to university.

She studied at night but when the pandemic hit, she was again interrupted. Eventually, she went to local aid workers and asked for help.

They set her up with a distance-learning platform. It was difficult at first because, like many Iraqi students, she was new to online learning. She pushed on with a small study group to prep for national exams on WhatsApp.

Her teacher says she’s seen a significant change in Reem in just a few months.

“When she came in (to the center), she was very desperate, and very, very shy to speak, very afraid,” said Hanan, the teacher, whose last name was withheld to protect her privacy. “But now she’s so different, more courageous, she speaks up.”

These days, when her family can find the money, Reem hopes to get a divorce, in spite of how that might stigmatize her in the community. She also plans to finish her degree, get a job and be independent. But first the national exam.

“If I don’t score high enough on the exam to go to university for oil engineering, I will take the exam again,” she said. “I won’t give up.”




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Copyright © 2018 Al-Fanar Mediaحقوق © 2018 الفنار للإعلام