Baghdad's Women Leaders Fight for Education

Female provincial councillors say top priorities are schools and children.

Baghdad's Women Leaders Fight for Education

Female provincial councillors say top priorities are schools and children.

Monday, 7 September, 2009
Mahdia Abdulhussein’s frustration with the Baghdad school system drove her to stand for the provincial council, where she is fighting alongside other women members to advance education and children’s issues.

Abdulhussein, whose background is in education, said her primary mission is to improve the quality of schools devastated by war and provide more support for students and teachers.

“There are many failures in curricula that impact education and students,” she said.

Her passion for education reform is shared by many of the 11 women on Baghdad’s 57-member provincial council. Many of the women served as teachers before moving into politics.

In interviews conducted by IWPR since the administrative body for the capital was elected in February, female council members from different political parties reported that they share many of the same goals, including developing education and pressing for an improved quality of life for their constituents – especially children and women.

Abdulhussein, who serves on the council’s education and civil society committees, said she is particularly concerned about outdated curricula, the high dropout rate and the deteriorating quality of education in Baghdad.

According to a 2007 report by the Baghdad provincial council, 13 per cent of secondary students in the province had dropped out of school, and 12 per cent of children never completed their elementary education.

Iraq’s education system has suffered following years of war and sanctions. Baghdad does not have enough schools, the student-teacher ratio is high and students often study in deplorable conditions, women provincial council members told IWPR.

Nisrin Hadi Jawad, an Arabic teacher and one of the youngest members of the provincial council, was shocked to learn that some schools have “cleaning classes” during which students work during school hours as janitors.

“This is occurring in many schools because they don’t have cleaning staff due to salary budget shortfalls,” she said. “I just need to ask those who are responsible for this, ‘Why should the child be burdened?’”

Jawad, 32, said the cleaning classes were a “dangerous sign” of deteriorating education.

A self-described champion of the underclass, she said one of her first tasks was cleaning up garbage in Shuala, an impoverished district where she lives.

As a teacher, Jawad said she is aware of deficiencies in schools. She has visited many in Baghdad and discovered some do not have teachers specialising in key subjects such as English and mathematics.

Crumbling educational infrastructure is also a serious issue that women provincial council members have pledged to tackle. Many schools and colleges lack water and electricity, and buildings have been neglected or damaged due to violence.

Schools struggle with overcrowding as Baghdad’s young population grows, placing increased pressure on buildings that are already in disrepair. In its 2007 report the provincial council made building and reconstructing schools its top educational priorities, but little progress has been made.

“The quality and infrastructure of the schools in many parts of Baghdad do not meet health standards. Most of them are run down and in need of maintenance and repair,” said Basima Abdulameer, a provincial council member who served as a school supervisor.

“I’m sorry to say that most of the schools are in ruins because of wars and the recent wave of violence,” she added.

Abdulhussein said she pressed for improved services and security in schools during final exams, including guaranteeing electricity for three hours and providing transport and clean drinking water for students.

Council member Iman al-Barazanchi, a European history professor at Baghdad University, said higher education faces similar problems. Baghdad also attracts many students from other provinces but they are forced to reside in poor-quality housing that lacks services.

She has proposed taxing visitors to religious sites in Iraq, the country’s main source of tourism, and using the money to boost the quality of life for students.

Despite their efforts and their professional accomplishments, the women have had to battle for respect in politics as they did in the workplace. Some have been dismissed as unqualified because they came to power under a quota system that was supposed to set aside 25 per cent of seats for female candidates.

In fact, only 11 of the 57 seats – or 20 per cent - were allocated to women.

“Iraqi society cannot accept the role of women in politics,” Barazanchi said. “In fact they still think that people only seek seats to earn more money … If men face so many difficulties in the political world, then [think] about what women face.”

Neda Shukur is an IWPR trainee in Baghdad.
Iraqi Kurdistan, Iraq
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