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The right to education for girls in post-ISIL Iraq

24 January 2021


“I never went to school. I needed to help my mother with the housework. I looked after my siblings, and now my babies.”

Esin is a 20-year-old mother of two who was forced by conflict to flee her home in Mosul, northern Iraq, and seek refuge in a camp for internally displaced persons. Unable to read or write, her plight resembles that of countless girls and young women in Iraq, whose access to education has been hindered by a multitude of factors.

Miriam, another camp resident, was forced into an early marriage at the age of 15.  “I cannot go to school because I am married now. I married a man from outside the camp. I do not think that he is a good man. He is old. He comes to the camp to collect me when he wants to see me. I want to divorce him and stay here all the time.”

But Miriam has no choice – her family needs the money. Many families in Iraq facing similar levels of poverty are ‘incentivised’ into marrying off girls early through the traditional system of receiving a dowry from the groom’s family.

Once married, girls are highly unlikely to access education.

Stories like Esin’s and Miriam’s are being highlighted in a report issued on International Education Day, examining how traditional gender roles and norms, family levels of education, poverty, perceived protection concerns, and trauma continue to limit girls’ access to education in Iraq, particularly in areas formerly under control of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

The second in a series of reports focusing on access to education as a crucial stabilising factor in Iraq’s post-conflict transition to a stable security environment and long-term peace, it was jointly authored by UN Human Rights and the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI).

Gender divisions driving a lack of education for girls

In Iraq, some 1.2 million children remain in need of education. Girls and women are affected disproportionately due to socially constructed gender norms, and those who have been internally displaced have reported increased sexual and gender-based violence, child, early and forced marriage, as well as economic and financial abuse.

In some rural areas, girls are prevented by their families to attend school, and the role of mother and caregiver is encouraged over participating in the formal workforce.

According to the report, these gender divisions have been further reinforced by ISIL. In territories under its control, girls and women have been subjected to heinous crimes and abuses. The report details a range of minority groups who have experienced rape, sexual slavery, forced pregnancy, trafficking and torture.

Poverty and family education levels

The report further outlines that girls’ access to education is directly impacted by their parents’ own learning levels. In many rural villages, which have suffered long-term inadequate schooling, with fewer girls schooled, fewer women are therefore able to become teachers.

Prevailing trauma and insecurity fears

Psychological scars left by the legacy of the years under the brutal rule of ISIL and violence have also had a scathing effect. Girls interviewed for the report who had returned to school said they suffered many challenges, including lack of concentration and feelings of helplessness and vulnerability.

“Many of the girls in my class were forbidden from leaving their houses for two years during the occupation,” says Hanna, a teacher from Mosul. “They can no longer study and they get very anxious. Without psychological support these girls will not stay in school.”

The level of perception of insecurity is also another significant hindrance to education, according to the report, with many families keeping their girls at home due to fear for their safety.

Education for girls: the way forward

While the report recognises the Government of Iraq’s efforts to guarantee equal opportunity education to every girl protected by the Constitution and national laws, it recommends a number of practical actions to address specific institutional and societal barriers girls face to access education.

All education policies should promote girls’ learning, the report advises, and gender-sensitive learning environments must be created. Among a number of other recommendations, the report also calls for strengthened incentives for school enrolment, for further support for girls who have suffered trauma, and for the reinforcement of programmes for older girls and young women who have not completed their basic education.

The recommendations reaffirm concrete commitments made as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to protect, promote and respect inclusive and equitable quality education for girls by the Government of Iraq. Similarly, these commitments were also strongly endorsed by the Universal Periodic Review process and the Government of Iraq’s acceptance of more than thirty recommendations on SDG 4, Quality Education.

“Measures to ensure equality of access to education engender broader human rights dividends for society as a whole, including long-term peace and stability,” concludes Danielle Bell, UN Human Rights Representative in Iraq and Chief of UNAMI’s Human Rights Office. “The report provides practical recommendations to address specific institutional and societal barriers girls face to access education, and aims to promote inclusive and equitable education for all children in Iraq.”

24 January 2021