London, Asharq Al-Awsat – The beginning of a new school year in Iraq brings with it anxiety to families across the country, as parents worry about whether their children will be safe going to school, especially their daughters who are fifteen years and older, as they are in danger of being raped or kidnapped.
For their part, the authorities are worried about the declining number of Iraqi children enrolled in Iraqi schools. According to Roger Wright, UNICEF special representative in Iraq, some “600 thousand children, 74% of whom are girls” will not be attending elementary school this year. In total, almost a quarter of all female children are not enrolled in school and 24% of all elementary students do not complete their elementary education because of the dire security situation across Iraq.
UNICEF has expressed its surprise and worry at figures released by the Iraqi ministry of education, which revealed that 64 children were killed, and 57 injured in attacks on education institutions in the country, in the first half the 2005 academic year.
Wright expressed his deep regret for the death of 311 teachers and employees in the ministry of education, and the injury of 1158 others in the same period. “We shouldn’t remain silent about these attacks that target schools and education facilities, children and teachers. They must be stopped.”
“Families have a genuine desire to send their children to school and the government is providing what it can to guarantee the stability and strengthening of the educational system; teachers are excelling in the most difficult circumstances and children themselves deserve the best start to life available. Let’s remember that even the war in 2003 did not stop the school year from being successfully completed. We all have to work to complete this incredible achievement.”
In a press release in March 2006, the education ministry indicated that more than 417 schools had been attacked in the first 4 months of the school year and several schools had been shut as a result of threats and violence.
Mariam al Ani, aged 43, who lives in the Kandi neighborhood in Baghdad, told Asharq Al Awsat that she stopped sending her child, 15 year-old Nour, to school after a fellow student was kidnapped. Her body was found a week later and she had been raped. “Most families requested to stop sending their girls to school after this incident.”
As for Samir al Khafaji, aged 56, who lives in al Saydiyah neighborhood, he said, “I have to carry my AK47 with me every morning when I accompany my sons Osama and Tahseen to school and then when I pick them up, for fear their will be kidnapped or killed.”
The parents of pupils at one school in Karadat Mariam, once Baghdad’s most upscale neighborhood, have taken the law into their own hands and are acting as vigilantes in order to ensure no terrorists enter the school premises and to protect their sons and daughters. Saleh Mohammed Karim, a parent, said, “The school has two security men and we believe they do not offer enough protection in case an armed group attacks the school, especially as a militia threatened to seize the school building and make it its headquarters. This is why we have established amongst ourselves a group that oversees the security of the school, to protect our children.”
Despite the depressing reality and the complaints by many parents to whom Asharq Al Awsat spoke, Dr. Khudair Khuzai, the minister of education in Iraq, emphasized that the true face of Iraq was completely different from what is reported in the media adding that Iraqis were now used to the lack of security in the country.
“The ministry of education employs more than 13 thousand guards to protect schools” across Iraq. Despite the lack of security, “the percentage of new students in Iraqi schools is 92%, the highest percentage in any developed nation, despite the lack of security and the lack of many educational tools and requirements in our schools. We need 4000 new school buildings and to re-build several other buildings. Between now and 2007, one hundred new schools will be constructed.”
The minister indicated, “The number of students in Iraq is currently 6 million taught by half a million teachers. Twenty thousand additional teaching staff will be appointed for the next school year.”
“The kidnapping attempts that some students are being subjected to are the result of the presence of organized crime which wants ransoms from parents.”
Last year, 33% of Iraqis succeeded in their studies, “an acceptable percentage if we take into consideration the difficult security situation and the lack of electricity.”
The minister emphasized that the school year will begin as scheduled on 28 September 2006.
Universities across Iraq have also suffered from the dire security situation. In Iraq, there are 25 accredited universities and 54 colleges, including 5 universities and 14 colleges in Kurdistan in northern Iraq. There are some half a million university students in Iraq, with the exception of Kurdistan which has 60 thousand current university students and seven thousand that will begin university or college this year.
In the view of Dr Abid Dhiyab al Ujayli, the minister for higher education in Iraq, said the biggest problem facing university students was the absence of security, with 153 university professors killed this year and thousands others driven to emigrate outside of Iraq.
“University education is facing a number of challenges, especially the security problem, the lack of equipment and the absence of an infrastructure to develop syllabuses.” The ministry had taken a number of decisions but these remain suspended as long as the security situation continues to deteriorate, he added.
Despite the presence of security guards to protect university campuses and buildings, “the problem lies in the fact that the assassinations and kidnappings of teachers and students occur outside university and far from it, as was the case when two teachers at Diyali university were gunned down as they made their way back to their homes, 15km away from the university.”
Al Ujayli complained about “the interference of some political parties in the affairs of some universities and colleges,” laying the blame on “a number of university presidents and college heads who leave the door open for political parties to interfere because of former allegiances or a weak personality. As for the ministry, we completely prohibit the interference of all politicians in the affairs of universities in Iraq.”
Meanwhile, in northern Iraq, security concerns are less of a problem for universities and colleges in Kurdistan. However, the main problem, according to Dr Idris Hadi Saleh, the minister of education in Kurdistan, is “the lack of allocated funds, teachers and equipment. Due to the sanctions imposed on Iraq under Saddam Hussein, after 1991, “Universities in Kurdistan are not in line with international universities.”
Speaking to Asharq Al Awsat from his office in Irbil, Saleh said, “The ministry is in the process of updating the curriculum and reconstructing university buildings in order to increase specializations and build modern universities that are in harmony with the developments of modern day life.”
“Because of the bad security situation in Baghdad, we have designated a number of university places for high school graduates from other regions of Iraq and we also accept students from universities outside Kurdistan,” the minister added.