Illiteracy Rate in Iraq Climbs among Highest in the Region

More than 6 million Iraqis cannot read and write
By Israa al-Samarrai

Azzaman, July 21, 2011

There are more than six million illiterate people in Iraq, most of them women, according to the parliamentary committee on education.

“Iraq possess an army of illiterates of more than six million people, and the majority them are women,” said Moona al-Maamouri, member of the committee.

She said several reasons were behind the large number of illiterates in Iraq.

She cited lack of security as among the main reasons. But she said illiteracy in Iraq was also due to worsening economic conditions and social stereotypes.

Maamouri did not say how her committee arrived at the numbers which mean that one out of every six years lacks reading and writing skills.

Iraq was, according to reports by U.N.’s Educational and Scientific Organization, one of the most literate in the whole of the Middle East more than four decades ago.

But Maamouri said conditions have deteriorated since then with the country plunging into wars in the 1980s and punitive economic sanctions in the 1990s.

“Illiteracy is rampant among women and among people in rural areas,” she said.
by NGO Coordination Committee for Iraq (NCCI)

One in five Iraqis between the ages of 10 and 49 cannot read or write a simple statement related to daily life[1]. While Iraq boasted a record low illiteracy rate for the Middle East in the 1980s, illiteracy jumped to at least 20% in 2010 Moreover, illiteracy among women in Iraq, at 24%, is more than double that of men (11%). As the Iraq Liaison for the international NGO Mercy Corps pointed out, “there are some locations—particularly rural locations—where the illiteracy rates are actually much higher. Illiteracy rates among women in some communities can be as high as 40-50%.”

Iraq was considered a reputable model for education in the Arab world only a few decades ago. Shortly after hosting the 1976 “Baghdad Conference for the Eradication of Illiteracy”—in which Arab leaders and international experts discussed the potential for progressive educational reforms in the region—the Ba’athist-led Iraqi government passed the Compulsory Education Law. Children between the ages of 6 and 15 were required to attend state schools; those who violated this law would have to serve time in state prison. This law helped raise the literacy rate in many governorates and strengthened the Iraqi state’s role as the chief maintainer and supervisor of the free public education system. Consequently, UNESCO estimated that primary schools had nearly a 100% gross enrollment attendance rate in the 1980s and much of the 1990s. [Iraq was awarded The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) prize for eradicating illiteracy in 1982 ]

The 1990s ushered in a period of war and deprivation countrywide. In 1990, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 661, thereby imposing some of the most severe international economic sanctions of the later 20th century against Iraq. For thirteen years, the international community—under significant pressure from the US and other powerful nations—blocked numerous staple items from entering Iraq. The banned items included many educational materials, which ranged from pencils and books to computers.

Moreover, as a result of the sanctions, most Iraqi students and scholars were unable to study or teach abroad, excluded from international conferences, and denied requests for research materials. While enrollment and literacy rates remained high throughout the sanctions period, many schools fell into a state of neglect Education fell as a priority while the Iraqi government sought to address more urgent concerns, such as maintaining medical clinics and hospitals for the general public.

Shortly after the US-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, the UN Security Council ended sanctions against Iraq. Initially, the US established an American-run administration—known as the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA)—to fill the power vacuum left by the collapsed Ba’athist-led state. By instituting a policy of “de-Ba’athification,” the CPA essentially ordered that former Ba’ath party members be removed from many components of the state apparatus, including the public educational sector. Most teachers and educational administrators had belonged to the Ba’ath party, in many cases due to political pressure. As a result of “de-Ba’athification,” many teachers and administrators with Ba’athist affiliations were fired or arrested. Moreover, more than 400 Iraqi academics have been assassinated, mainly by death squads targeting voices for human rights, between 2003 and 2010. This phenomenon of threats and violence against academics has led to a ‘brain drain’ in Iraq; since 2003, thousands of teachers and scholars—particularly in secondary and higher education—have fled the country.

In addition to a lack of qualified and experienced teachers, attendance and enrollment in public schools has declined considerably in the past seven years. In pre-invasion Iraq, gross school attendance was estimated at nearly 100% But in 2003 alone, more than 2,700 schools were looted, damaged or burned in the American-led invasion and its chaotic aftermath. This destruction and insecurity certainly discouraged school attendance—if not making it impossible at times Between 2006 and 2007, the most intense period of civil war and violence, the Iraqi government estimated that only 33% of children regularly attended school American and coalition troops, as well as local militias, occupied many schools in that period; this resulted in considerable damage and civilian casualties.

The civil war, a period of considerable hardship, perhaps most acutely affected women’s education. Many families pulled their daughters out of school due to security concerns, especially with a lack of transportation and far distances between many schools and homes. Furthermore, families in poor economic conditions generally prioritized education for boys over girls. “There are household needs, and girls are often required to stay home to help care for other children, elderly and disabled, and to help with household chores,” explained the Iraq Liaison for Mercy Corps. Many parents are still afraid to send their children—and especially their daughters—to school while the security situation remains fragile or deteriorates in some areas. However, according to Iraq’s National Bureau of Statistics, gross school attendance has slowly but steadily risen to about 45% in 2010, partly due to some recent security gains.

Both Mercy Corps and Anwar Al-Azari, Director of the local NGO Nour, represent the general consensus that the Iraqi government needs to rehabilitate existing educational facilities and build additional schools that provide safe drinking water and functioning bathrooms. In 2003, UNESCO estimated that 5,000 new schools were needed and between 6,000 and 7,000 schools needed rehabilitation After seven years of intense combat and natural population increase, these figures are likely much higher. As a result of the school facilities shortage, teachers frequently have more than seventy students crowded into one classroom. Some teachers opt to work in multiple shifts, and are generally poorly compensated. The curriculum and methodology must also be reviewed and updated, and education for girls should be prioritized.

“In order to fully participate in the rebuilding of Iraq and to claim their rights as citizens of a democracy, it is very important that Iraqis are able to read and write,” noted the Iraq Liaison. Yet reviving Iraq’s educational system is a formidable task. “It is difficult to prioritize needs when there are so many gaps that need to be filled.” As more pockets of Iraq transition from a state of humanitarian emergency towards a phase of development, there is a real opportunity to direct and increase funds towards Iraq’s educational facilities and structures. Adequate and sustainable assistance may help Iraq’s educational sector regain—or even exceed—its former reputation as the intellectual and educational capital of the Arab world.

[1] The United Nations defines an illiterate person as “someone who cannot, with understanding, both read and write a short, simple statement on his or her everyday life. A person who can only read but not write, or can write but not read is considered to be illiterate. A person who can only write figures, his or her name or a memorized ritual phrase is also not considered literate.”



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