It’s Either Occupation or Education

BAGHDAD — Two in three children in Iraq have simply stopped going to school, according to a government report.

Iraq’s Ministry of Education says attendance rates for the new school year, which started Sep. 20, are at an all-time low.

Statistics released by the ministry in October showed that a mere 30 percent of Iraq’s 3.5 million students are currently attending classes. This compares to roughly 75 percent of students who were attending classes the previous year, according to the Britain-based NGO Save the Children.

Just before the U.S.-led invasion in spring 2003, school attendance was nearly 100 percent.

Iraqis are forgetting almost what a child needs. Dr. Ahmed Aaraji of the Baghdad Societal Organisation, an Iraqi NGO which monitors the state of Iraqi schools and families in an effort to assist families where possible, is trying to remind everyone what that should be.

“To build a child’s character, the home atmosphere should be appropriate, parents should attend to children, the school environment should be proper, and the whole society should function at the best level,” he told IPS. “But none of these factors seems to exist in Iraq any more.”

Iraq was awarded The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) prize for eradicating illiteracy in 1982. At that time, literacy rates for women were among the highest of all Islamic nations.

Education today presents a quite different picture. An IPS correspondent visited a primary school in the capital city, located in the volatile al-Amiriyah district in western Baghdad not far from the airport, after making his way through piles of garbage. And these piles grow bigger by the day, residents say.

The two-storey building looks neat enough with a fresh coat of yellow paint, but one step inside reveals years of neglect.

“During the regime of Saddam Hussein, Iraqi schools suffered from the poverty of the state due to the U.S.-backed UN sanctions,” the headmaster told IPS. “The main problem now is the corruption of contractors and senior administration staff.”

Contracts have been handed out for refurbishment, he said. But in effect, “they just paint the walls and fix some cheap accessories to collect their cash, and go.”

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) declared as early as October 2004 that the education system in Iraq was “effectively denying children a decent education, and the poor quality of the learning environment delivers a major blow to children.”

The study also confirmed that thousands of schools lacked the basic facilities to provide children a decent education.

UNICEF representative Roger Wright said in the October 2004 report: “Iraq used to have one of the finest school systems in the Middle East. Now we have clear evidence of how far the system has deteriorated. Today millions of children in Iraq are attending schools that lack even basic water or sanitation facilities, have crumbling walls, broken windows and leaking roofs. The system is overwhelmed.”

Two years later, the situation has grown far worse. Now it is so bad that international agencies are not around to survey it any more.

Still, several parents continue to send their children to school. “We have to because what is the alternative,” Um Abdulla told IPS at the front gate of a school in Baghdad as she waited to collect her children.

Literacy is declining with school education. UNESCO estimates that the literacy rate in Iraq as of Dec 11 is below 60 percent, meaning six million illiterate adults. The average literacy rate in Iraq 2000-2003 was 74 percent, according to UNICEF in 2004.

In the rural areas illiteracy is worse. Only 37 percent of rural women are literate, and only 30 percent of Iraqi girls of high school age are even enrolled in school. That compares with about 42 percent of boys, according to the UNESCO report this month.

Security is the prime concern, for parents and teachers.

“Roads are unsafe, with all the explosions and abductions that threaten our children on their way to school,” mother of three Um Suthir told IPS.

Mothers usually accompany their children to school and bring them back home. With abductions on the rise, neither are safe.

Many schools in the capital have lowered their hours of classes to less than four a day due to shortage of teachers and facilities, and lack of security.

In war-torn Fallujah, many of the schools destroyed in the November 2004 U.S.-led attack on the city have not been rebuilt. This has led to reduced hours of classes being held in sometimes three shifts in makeshift buildings.

Ali al-Ka’abi from the Ministry of Education said the problem is worse in the capital and in cities in al-Anbar province to the west of Baghdad, where up to 30 percent of school buildings are being used by U.S. and Iraqi soldiers. This province, that includes Fallujah and Ramadi, has seen the fiercest resistance to U.S. occupation.

The collapsing economy is also keeping several children away from school. Many children have had to leave school because of family poverty or after the families were evicted from homes and hometowns for sectarian reasons.

“We are now living in a factory building, and there is no school near our shelter,” a Baghdad resident told IPS. “I’ve had to ask for my oldest boy to help cover expenses by working as a cleaner at a mechanic’s shop nearby.”

The man said he used to own a small supermarket where he also lived; he now works as a porter. And he has no hope his children can ever go to school any more.