Friday, January 12, 2007

Iraq’s Education Under Grave Threat

by Karen Button

At the beginning of this school year, officials predicted that 800,000 (or 22 percent) or Iraq’s children would not be attending classes due to violence and displacement. According to actual figures recently released by the Iraqi Ministry of Education the number is higher. Much higher.

Of Iraq’s 3.5 million school-aged children, a full 70 percent are now staying home.

“It’s a dark future for Iraq’s children, especially if this situation doesn’t change,” a Ministry of Education (MoE) supervisor told me over the phone.

Najida Mahteb* oversees 95 elementary schools throughout Baghdad and in the small, mostly agricultural villages north of the city. Overall there are approximately 1,700 primary and secondary schools in Baghdad.

“I am responsible for the quality of a child’s education. It’s my job to check on the teachers and to share new ideas. For example, I sit in the classes and watch the teachers with their students. I check the notebooks of the students to see what is being learned and the teachers to see what is being taught.”

Now though, safety tops the list of priorities for everyone. Children are being kept at home by parents worried about kidnapping, or worse.

Ten year-old Haifa Waleed lives in Adhamiya, one of Baghdad’s most violent neighborhoods. She hasn’t been to school for three years she says. “I’m scared of the killings taking place in Iraq. Many of my friends have either been kidnapped or killed.

“I miss my school very much,” Haifa told the IRIN News organisation, “but in the classroom I used to keep looking at the door to see if someone would break in and kidnap me. My family is poor and if they [the kidnappers] take me, I might die because they cannot pay a ransom.”

Another family I spoke with told me they have kept their two daughters home for the first time this year. “The situation has been violent in the past, but not like it is now,” their aunt, Sabah, stated. “While I am concerned for their education, we can teach them things at home. It’s better this way.”

Prior to debilitating sanctions in the 1990s, Iraq had one of the highest literacy rates in the developing world and the highest number of female PhDs in the Middle East; half of all academics were women. Education is highly valued among Iraqis, even by those with little education themselves.

“My mother came from an uneducated family in Fallujah,” says Hana*. Her mother, now 68 years old, came from a poor family. “You can imagine 60 years ago in this conservative town--her own mother was not even free--yet even they encouraged her to go to school and she taught school for years in the south.”

Now, says Hana, everything has changed under occupation. Especially for women and children, who are targets of fundamentalist militias. “I’ve never seen Iraqi women in this situation before. Not in my whole life. Just this week, three more university students [in Baghdad] were kidnapped and raped by militias.”

Also this week, schools in Baghdad’s troubled Al-Dora district were shut down when American bombs began dropping on alleged “insurgent strongholds” and street fighting escalated.

Add to this the hundreds of academics who have been killed and the thousands who have fled the country since 2003. Though no offical statistics exist, between 250 and 500 academics have been murdered and several hundred kidnapped, threatened or arrested by Coalition forces, militias, Iraq’s government or gangs. In November, for example, about 80 gunmen raided a building at the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research in Baghdad. Dressed as Iraqi National Police commandos, they kidnapped 100 academics, staff workers and visitors, prompting the Iraqi government to temporarily close all universities under emergency order. Five top security officials were later arrested as complicit in the crime.

Unbelievably, in the midst of such chaos, people like Najida Mahteb continue their work as best they can. Normally, Najida would drive herself to each of her 95 schools on a rotational basis, ensuring teachers have the necessary tools to give Iraq’s next generation the best education. She still insists on visiting Baghdad’s schools despite the risks associated with unrelenting violence and al-Maliki’s latest security plans, which include shutting down the city’s bridges. But, Najida hasn’t done any site visits to the 25 rural schools in her jurisdiction since last February’s bombing of Samarra’s Al-Aksari Mosque. It’s too dangerous even for her.

“It’s sad. Even though most of the people in this area are farmers, those kids are very intelligent and graduate from the university in Baghdad. They prize education.

“But now, there are so many problems, especially from the militias. Some are from the area, but mostly they are from the outside.” She explains that because one of the biggest American bases, Taji, is close by, Iraqi Army and Iraqi National Guard checkpoints have been set up close by. “These checkpoints, especially, are a cover for the militias. It is impossible to go.” (Militias commonly operate under the guise or with the cooperation of Iraqi security forces.)

“I met with one the of the [rural] teachers yesterday when she was in Baghdad. I had told her of my idea to bring my mother with me so the militias would not bother us. But, she told me ‘please don’t come’ because of the possibility of kidnapping by Mehdi Army, even if I came with my mother!

“There are new ways of teaching now, and they have no idea of the new ways because I can’t show them,” worries Najida.

Unfortunately, even if Najida could visit these schools and share the new methods, there might not be students to receive them.

As ten year-old Haifa concludes, “I prefer to be illiterate than to die or see a friend killed in front of me or maybe kidnapped and have my ears sent to my family as happened to one of my best friends three months ago.”

* Not their real names.