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Equity & Diversity

‘Culture of Fear’ Afflicts Iraqi Education System

By Mary Ann Zehr — March 04, 2008 3 min read

Militia members have sent death threats to teachers and students. Schools have been hit by American missiles or caught in the crossfire between sectarian groups or U.S. soldiers and insurgents. Children have often missed school because roads were blocked for security reasons, or parents have pulled them out because they feared they would be kidnapped.

That’s how the war in Iraq has affected the quality of schooling, according to teachers, children, and parents who have left Iraq and are living in Jordan.

But no one seems to have reliable information about how widespread such incidents are, making it difficult to know the overall status of schooling in Iraq.

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“Insecurity is a major problem affecting education—there’s no question about that,” said Claire Hajaj, the chief of external relations for UNICEF’s office supporting Iraq, in Amman. “Whether every school has been targeted or every teacher targeted, that hasn’t happened. There is no hard data that can show us the scale of such things.”

What can be found, she said, “is a culture of fear.”

Mohammed Sadik Nasrullah, the cultural attaché for the Iraq Embassy here in Amman, acknowledges that children have occasionally been kidnapped in his country and that some schools have been controlled by militias, but he said such occurrences are “isolated incidents,” and the security situation in Iraq is improving.

Some observers believe that security is better because of the recent “surge” of U.S. troops.

Daniel P. Serwer, the vice president of the Center for Post-Conflict Peace and Stability Operations at the United States Institute of Peace, is among them. He also points to some Iraqis’ willingness to fight al-Qaida. Congress established the institute, which facilitated the Iraq Study Group in 2006.

While Baghdad has experienced a decline in violence, Ms. Hajaj said, that’s not necessarily true in other parts of the country, and recovery of families from instability will take time.

School attendance dropped during the course of the war, but statistics aren’t available for what percentage of children are in school now, which might reflect an improved security situation. A survey, conducted by the Iraqi Ministry of Education, with assistance from UNICEF, in the 2003-04 school year found 83 percent of children were attending primary school. Another one carried out during the 2006-07 school year—yet to be published—indicates that school enrollment had dropped to 50 percent or 60 percent by then, according to Ms. Hajaj.

“Enrollment rates are only a start,” she added. “Usually, fewer children attend than enroll.”

The survey for last school year found that only 28 percent of Iraqis who were of the age to graduate from high school sat for the country’s graduation exams last summer. Of those who took the test, only 40 percent passed, Ms. Hajaj said.

Iraqis here in Jordan paint a picture of a school system back in Iraq that has deteriorated.

Bushra Kamil, who was an English teacher at the Al-Bajool School, said that near the end of 2003, members of sectarian groups kidnapped and killed 15 girls from her secondary school in Baghdad; they were abducted while riding the school bus. For months after that, she said, only about one in eight of the school’s 600 students came to school.

See Also

Return to the main story,

The Lost Years

A longtime educator, who moved to Amman from Baghdad within the past two years and asked not to be named for security reasons, said that at the large secondary school for girls where she taught, members of militias hung banners telling girls they would be killed if they went to school.

Once, she said, militia members entered the school and ignored her instructions to leave. She said she and an English teacher sought the help of American soldiers, who removed the militia members.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 05, 2008 edition of Education Week as ‘Culture of Fear’ Afflicts Iraqi Education System

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