Displaced women in Iraq: Should we eat? Or study?
It was 45 degrees outside and we had been without electricity for 12 hours. I was trying to get some sleep after a long night of preparation for my final exams. That is when my mother walked in. She was scared, pale. Her eyes were full of tears. I was scared to ask the reason but I had to know. Fearing the worst, I asked her, “Is everyone still alive?”
Fortunately she answered, “Yes.” My mother first broke the dreadful news to my father. Our house had been marked with an X. She was scared that this can be a threat. Few hours later my father received a phone call informing him that his clinic had been burned.
Despite the eminent threat and danger, my parents wanted to stay. They said, “We have hurt no one, no one will hurt us.” Few days later our neighbor was shot. His wife told us that their house had also been marked by the ominous ‘X’. A sectarian war had started and we had to leave our neighborhood.
We packed our stuff and sneaked out of our own house in the dark of the night in the end of 2006. There was to be no final exam for me, or a school or education in any form, at least for some time. I felt devastated. But, I decided to take my books with me anyway. I left everything staying alive was the only thing that mattered then.
In 2007, four years after war, we arrived in Kurdistan region in the north of the country to seek refuge. Everything was so different for us; the culture, the language, and the people. But none of this really mattered because we were safe. We rented a small house and restarted our lives.
It wasn’t easy. My sisters and I could not continue with our education. There were one or two Arabic schools in the region, but they were not enough to accommodate the large number of displaced Arab girls. Shortage of study materials and poor class conditions meant that many girls could not attend school. I had to wait for a whole year before I could start my proper education.
In spite of all these hardships, my family was very supportive. I was able to finish my education and get a job later on. I am one of the lucky ones.
Sadly, not all stories about women and girls displaced in Iraq end this way.
Seventeen year old Sana was displaced from Baghdad in conditions similar to mine. Her house was also marked with an ‘X’ and her family had to abandon everything and leave. Unfortunately, Sana lost her father to the war. She lived with her mother and her two siblings in a camp for displaced people. They faced poverty, sickness, and bad living conditions with thousands of other displaced women and children who shared the camp with them.
She moved to a rented house in Kurdistan with her family as soon as they could afford it. I learned that she never made it back to school ever since she was displaced. She left the school in Kurdistan because she could not afford it. I met Sana through a women’s organization* in Kurdistan. She now works as a cleaner with her mother to support the family.
For a lot of women in Iraq, 2003 was the year when we thought we will get to practice our right to vote and participate in real elections. We were looking forward better education, and brighter futures. The war in 2003 destroyed these hopes. Since then, future has become uncertain.
Ten years after the war, internal displacement remains a big issue. The impact of war and forced migration on women has been devastating, and education has been a casualty of war. Education is being the biggest casualty.
Sana’s story is also the story of most girls who have been displaced by the war. A lot of them are yet to return to a proper home or a settled life. According to the Internally Displaced Monitoring Center (IDMC), the female headed displaced families are among the most affected by internal displacement. The majority of these women have no employment opportunity. They are socially isolated as they speak different language. They also face the risk of gender violence, (Internal Displacement Organization). If you observe closely, major part of these problems stems from the fact that these women had to give up education.
Thousands of girls like Sana were forced to quit their education after getting displaced. Social instability made them feel hopeless and less eager to learn. Some of them do not continue their schooling because survival is a bigger concern.
With physical and financial stability being priority, displaced women have chosen different paths to meet their needs. Some women choose early marriage to secure their financial needs. Refugees International reported that many displaced women have entered into temporary marriages known as “Muta Marriage”. These women have married to avoid having sexual intercourse outside wedlock. The arrangement also gives them social security and stability. They are not entitled to alimony in case of a divorce. For the sake of security they give away basic rights guaranteed to women who enter into official matrimony.
Jobs are not easy to come-by. It’s not just a problem of qualification. A lot of displaced women do not have proper documents to prove their identity. In times of war and internal strife, people are reluctant to give jobs without any proof of identity. Adversities such as these and the need to earn money for basic survival, forces a lot of women and girls into prostitution.
Ten years after the war, the situation in Iraq continues to be grim. Insecurity is still an issue and more women are forced to escape their homes searching for safety. Women nurture the future of a nation. Our nation will be uneducated and unhappy if we let our women remain this way. Constructive measures need to be taken now to prevent more girls from witnessing a future full of uncertainties.
The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has taken a lot of steps to support displaced women in the region. KRG has worked with UNHCR, IOM, and other international organizations to support as many displaced families as possible, such as providing camps, food and medication supplies, however, the number of internally displaced women is big and there are men and children who have also been displaced.
A more coordinated and large scale effort is needed to transform this situation. It’s not something the government can pull-off on its own. Both government and non-governmental organizations need to work together. While the KRG is putting in effort, it will need support from the central government in Baghdad to solve the problem on a large scale. The KRG cannot handle everything caused by the instability of the Central Government.
Education of displaced women and girls needs immediate attention. There are just one or two schools teaching Arabic in the Kurdistan region. These are not enough to cater to the large number of displaced Arabic girls. The region needs more schools for girls that teach in Arabic so that more and more of them can continue their education. More cooperation between local immigration offices in Kurdistan and Education departments is needed to dedicate more schools. Perhaps, organizations can provide class area; ministry of education provides materials and teachers, and government assist financially.
Kurdistan is heading towards being independent and promoting their language is important for them. It may seem problematic to build as many Arabic schools. Yet, it will be helpful for displaced girls to get access to basic education in Arabic, as they gradually become proficient in the local language. Slight modifications in the curriculum to meet the specific needs of displaced girls and children in general will help them catch-up with what they have missed and learn the local language in the due course of their education as well.
It’s understood that building a new school from scratch will require time. While that’s done, existing schools can introduce additional shifts in their schedule. This will give more students a chance to attend school at an hour feasible for them.
Travelling to the city to attend school becomes a big deterrent for those living in rural areas outside the city. Not only is the travel expensive, it is not considered safe for girls. A large population of displaced families lives outside the city. Schools in their village or closer to their village will make it convenient for them to attend.
Cheaper and more frequent modes of public transportation will also help bring more girls to school. Today, Kurdistan depends on taxis as a mean of transportation. Taxis are relatively affordable, but not for low income families like Sana’s family. The government can introduce a few buses that link the cities to villages, making it easy for more girls, living away from the city, to attend classes.
A lot of the displaced women I met have been away from school for almost ten years now. Going back to school does not appeal to them anymore. Getting a job that helps them earning a basic living is more important for them. Due to their lack of skill, most women end-up with low paying jobs.
Organisations and the government can help by providing vocational training to these women. A good skill-set will help women to secure better paying jobs. Vocational training in areas of local handicraft or art work has helped many women in developing nations become independent bread winners for their family. Basic education facilities for instance, equipped with basic class materials that can teach women basic science and literature can also provide women in camps some skills, and keep their lives moving and they do not usually cost a lot of money.
It is possible to assist displaced women in their education or career, but it takes political will and determined efforts by Kurdish, central government, the community, and regional and international organizations. While large sums of money are being spent on building new malls, theme parks and luxury living compounds, we could invest. A small part of this on displaced women education, it will make a big difference.
The Iraqi society has witnessed war, aggression, violence and oppression over the last 40 years. Women tend to be the first victims in such situations. With everything that’s happening around them, they have to continue to look after their children, support their husbands, and be there for their families. These very women can also become doctors, teachers, and lawyers if they are given the access to good education.
Those of us, who strive to bring about change, know that it does not take place overnight. Yet we need to start somewhere and keep up our efforts till we make a difference. It is never too late to take action.
Last ten years have been a set-back for thousands of women and girls in Iraq. We can’t let another generation of women suffer a life of insecurity. Let’s build a future where no girl or women in Iraq has to give-up her dream because her house was marked with an X. *
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous digital media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.