Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Girls Denied Education
Thirteen-year-old Huda Ahmed’s world was turned upside down when her classmate was kidnapped two years ago.
The girl was snatched by armed men on her way to school in Kirkuk, and was only released three days later when her family paid 40,000 US dollars in ransom.
Fearing harm may come to their only daughter, Huda’s parents pulled her out of school. Often depressed, she now spends her days cleaning the house and watching television when there’s electricity.
Huda envies her classmates and two brothers, who still attend school, and says she is deeply conflicted about her parents’ decision. She calls it “an ugly crime perpetrated against me”, although in the next breath, says she understands her parents’ logic.
“I’ll go back to school the first chance I get, but for the time being I will respect my parents’ decision,” said Huda.
A survey released earlier this year by NGO Women for Women International found that Iraqi girls are being removed from school at an alarming rate. Three-quarters of the 1,510 women surveyed said girls in their families were being denied an education, and just over half said the trend began following the US-led invasion in 2003.
In the north province of Kirkuk, where ethnic and sectarian violence have broken out sporadically, the directorate of education estimates that about 30 per cent of girls have dropped out of school over the past five years.
Experts said that a combination of factors, including poor security, poverty and tradition, were at play.
Daliya Mukarram, 33, a social worker specialising in education in Kirkuk, said girls in rural areas have always had difficulty accessing education because of strict tribal restrictions and traditions. In the 1970s, the Ba’athist government insisted that girls in the countryside stay at school until the age of ten.
Yet today, even well-educated parents in the region have begun pulling their girls out of class because of the violence and instability, said Mukarram.
"The rates of girls leaving schools have soared recently due to the deteriorating security situation and the fear that [girls] will be targeted by terrorists,” she said.
Huda’s father, 44-year-old Ahmed Latif, said he doesn’t want her to attend class because she could be killed or sexually assaulted, “which would be a stain on the family’s honour”.
“I forced my daughter to drop [out of] school to protect her from gangs and terrorists,” he said.
Her mother, Faza Mustafa, 39, said, “It hurts me to see her so sad because she had to quit school. We want all our children to be educated and get good jobs in the future.”
Although both of Huda’s parents are literate and value education, other families disapprove of sending girls to study.
Nawal Hasan, a 41-year-old housewife in Kirkuk, does not allow her three daughters – ages 9, 12 and 17 – to attend school. Hasan’s mother permitted her to have an education so that she could learn the alphabet and write her name. However, she dropped out of elementary school and married at age 19.
"I prefer for my daughters to stay at home,” she said. “It’s better than if they go to school and get hurt. Our family traditions do not allow girls to go to school…Sending girls out of the house and mixing with [strangers] will taint their reputations and the family’s honour.”
Poverty is also driving some parents to pull their children out of school and send them to work instead, Women for Women International noted in its report.
Nadwa Mahmood, head of the Al-Intisar girls’ school in Kirkuk, said that while teaching staff have been flexible about attendance and the government has provided them guards since 2006, girls continue to drop out at age 13 or 14.
Mahmood fears the consequences that a lack of education will have on the girls’ prospects.
“The issues of illiteracy will have a huge impact on the girls and even when they get married it will have a bearing on their children because these [future mothers] might continue the tradition of their families and keep their daughters at home,” he said.
According to Mukarram, girls who stay at home often feel empty and depressed and develop poor habits such as addiction to television and overeating,
Ali Ghadir, a 35-year-old writer from Kirkuk, said that girls and women are losing what little independence they had because of the security situation. He said an entire generation will be affected if girls continue to leave school.
“In the future, there will be a huge class of uneducated women and that will affect their children,” he said. “These girls will spend the rest of their lives working in their homes and will marry whomever their parents want.”
In order to combat the problem, the ministry of education is sending out mobile teams to villages around Kirkuk to educate students who have dropped out, said Nassradeen Abdulrahman, head of planning bureau at Kirkuk’s directorate of education.
The ministry of education has also developed a fast-track programme to help students between the ages of 12 and 18 who quit elementary school, continued Abdulrahman.
Mukarram said that charities could also help increase children’s education opportunities by providing study materials for them to use at home.
However, while these solutions may help girls pulled out of school because of security concerns, those whose families do not value education will not appreciate outside efforts to educate them, maintained Ghadir.
“These issues are considered family issues and the families make decisions,” he said. “The idea is that organisations don’t have the right to interfere with family issues.”
Samah Samad is an IWPR-trained journalist in Kirkuk.
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