Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Kirkuk Women Catch Up on Lost School Years
Every evening after finishing her household chores, Um Sarah crouches down on the floor and gets going with one of her favourite pastimes: homework.
Her books scattered around her on the floor, Um Sarah is sharpening her literacy skills. For her, education is a step to a better future, and one that dims some of the pain of her past. The former Ba’athist regime forcibly moved her family to southern Iraq when she was a child, leaving Um Sarah, at the time in third grade, unable to continue her studies.
"My father refused at the time to let me go to school in a town where we were looked on as strangers,” said Um Sarah, who asked that her full name not be used because of security concerns. “We were a deported Kurdish family that aroused a lot of curiosity and suspicion.”
Um Sarah and her family returned to Kirkuk after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003. She, like more than 2,000 other women in Kirkuk, is aiming to improve her reading and writing skills so that she can land a coveted civil service job.
The ministry of education has launched literacy campaigns for citizens with little or no education. These programmes are particularly aimed at empowering girls and women, giving them the chance to earn a decent living.
Representatives of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the country reported in March that 24 per cent of women and girls above the age of ten are illiterate. According to the office, one tenth of Iraqi households are headed by women, but they comprise only 17 per cent of the workforce. The UN warned that “illiteracy has contributed to the weak participation of women in the labour force”.
The Ba’athist regime introduced literacy programmes in the 1970s. Selected adults – many of whom were women – risked being sent to prison if they didn’t take part. As a result, Iraq had the highest literacy rate in the Arab world.
But few benefited in Kirkuk because the city was in turmoil at the time. One of Iraq’s most diverse provinces, it was subject to massive demographic changes as the regime pushed out Kurds and Turkomans and brought in Arabs, mostly from the south, in an effort to “Arabise” the region. Like Um Sarah, many children of the deported families were unable to continue their education.
Muhammad Zeki Abdullah, director-general of education in the Kirkuk governorate, estimates that 40 per cent of the local population is illiterate.
He believes the lack of such basic skills has meant that residents have a poor understanding of the sectarian conflict that has engulfed their city in recent years. Kurds, Turkomans and Arabs have all vied for power, with tensions often erupting into violence.
“As Kirkuk is a [diverse] city, its people need a good level of awareness and education so that they can overcome ... sectarianism,” Abdullah said.
Kirkuk launched a local literacy programme in 2006 with six training centres opening that year. Their number rose to 13 in 2007, and now stands at 61. Most of the courses are between six months and one year.
"Most of those who are enthusiastic about attending our literacy classes are citizens directly affected by the former regime’s policies, chiefly Kurds and Turkomans,” Abdullah said.
Some 4,000 students are currently enrolled – well over half of them women. Many of those who complete the courses are employed as civil servants, seen as a good career move at a time of high unemployment.
"They are very much aware of the fact that getting an educational qualification is the key to earning a higher salary,” Abdullah said.
Literacy courses are only in Arabic, but efforts are being made to hold Kurdish-language classes too. Demand is such that Abdullah is planning to recruit another 200 teachers.
While adults form the majority of the literacy programme participants, there’s growing concern over the reading and writing skills of teenagers, particularly those that have stopped going to school because of the political tensions and sporadic violence.
Sabah Rashid, headmaster of the Al-Tahaddi school, runs literacy programmes targeting 15 to 20-year-olds.
"Teenagers have been compelled by [the situation in the city] to drop out of school and [then] struggle to earn a living for themselves and their families," he said.
Meanwhile, Um Sarah said she will encourage her husband to take a literacy course to improve the family’s economic prospects.
“That way we can both get degrees that would qualify us for good jobs,” she said. “We can make up for what we have missed, and be in a better position to help our children with their education.”
Samah Samad is an IWPR-trained journalist in Kirkuk.
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