Opinion: The world needs to invest in Iraq's collapsed education infrastructure

Malala Yousafzai, Pakistani activist for female education and Nobel peace laureate, at a classroom in Iraq. Photo by: Malin Fezehai / Malala Fund

With Iraqi forces retaking Mosul and the Islamic State group retreating from Kurdish-held territory, people in this region are already talking of rebuilding, recovery and stabilisation.

Today, half of Iraq’s population is under 19 years old. Without dramatic and urgent improvements in the education system, Iraq risks further conflict, economic and political insecurity and a protracted recovery. The coming months could determine Iraq’s future.

On top of the conflict-related trauma, Iraq’s children suffer from chronic underinvestment in education by local, national and international actors.  

Iraq was once a center for learning and knowledge. Baghdad, the foundry of the golden age of Islam, generated scholarship and scientific discovery when the rest of the world was in the Dark Ages. In recent history, the modern Iraqi state invested in education, achieving regionally impressive rates of enrolment, numeracy and gender parity in the 1970s.

But after decades of persistent conflict preceded by economic sanctions, Iraq’s educational infrastructure collapsed. Half of Iraq’s schools do not meet national building standards.

In the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, the government cut salaries for public school teachers up to 75 percent in some cases and teachers report they are not regularly paid. Many teachers are hesitant to return to areas recently held by the Islamic State group.

One-third of Iraq’s schools run multiple shifts, sometimes four per day. Educators struggle to accommodate hundreds of thousands of children moving within the country and across its borders to escape ISIS and Assad.

The United Nations recommends governments allocate 20 percent of their national budgets to education. According to UNICEF, Iraq’s education budget for 2015-2016 was just 5.7 percent of government spending, a 15 percent drop from 2013-2014. Today, the Iraqi government is spending less on education than any other country in the region.

While donor countries are quick to fund security and physical infrastructure, they’ve also neglected Iraq’s children. Just one-quarter of the education cluster request for Iraq’s Humanitarian Response plan is funded, leaving a $70 million shortfall for 2017.

Amidst such scarcity of resources, Iraq’s girls suffer the most. 60 percent of girls aged 14-18 are not in secondary school. Studies show that this developmental period hugely affects a girl’s future health, fertility rate, marital status, employment prospects and earning potential.

Among internally displaced people, girls are even less likely to get an education than their counterparts in mainstream schools. About 355,000 IDP children — 48.3 percent — are out of school in Iraq. At the secondary level, 50 percent more displaced boys go to school than girls.

The autonomous KRI is the epicentre of this crisis. In areas such as Salah al-Din and Diyala, 90 percent of children are out of school. In the middle of a financial crisis caused by falling oil prices, the Kurdish Regional Government spent just 6 percent of its allocated education budget. This amounted to $40 per child, compared to $1,116 per child spent by Iraq’s federal government.

Children in the KRI, who include 98 percent of Syrian refugee children in Iraq and hundreds of thousands of young Mosul evacuees, are further penalised by tension between the Iraqi federal government and the KRG. Financial support from Baghdad to Erbil was cut off in 2014.

For refugee and IDP girls in this region, armed conflicts mean increased risk of harassment, sexual violence and child marriage. Save the Children estimates 1 million of these girls under age 15 are now married. Others describe lives of isolation and loneliness, confined to family tents or houses for their safety.

Primary and secondary girls’ education grows economies, reduces the risk of conflict and improves public health and political stability. Iraq can emerge from the smoke and rubble on a more positive trajectory — if they prioritise education with support from the international community.

The rich history of the Iraqi and Kurdish people includes devastating chapters in the last few decades. Daughters of this region have suffered the most, but they could be the authors of a brighter future.

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About the author

  • Barry Johnston

    Barry Johnston is associate director of advocacy at Malala Fund, the organization co-founded by Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai. Malala Fund campaigns for all girls to have access to 12 years of free, safe, quality education. Barry is based in London and leads the organization's international advocacy. He has worked previously at Amnesty International, ActionAid and Christian Aid.