Education fights for its life in Iraq

03-11-2008 - “The murder of a student is the murder of hope,” said Dr Hasni Abidi of the International Committee for Solidarity with Iraqi Academics, speaking at a conference on education in crisis situations held at UNESCO headquarters in Paris.

The three-day conference, “Right to Education in Crisis-Affected Countries: Stop jeopardizing the future of Iraq,” heard how a campaign of terror targeting children, students and academics had crippled the Iraqi education system and forced intellectuals into exile.

The conference, which aimed to raise awareness in the international community, brought together over 200 Iraqi educators and students, university rectors and academics, experts, donors, representatives of international organizations, NGOs and specialists in human rights as well as international and regional media professionals.

Speaking on the second day, Mr Muhsin Abed-Ali Shlaga, Advisor to the Minister of Education in Iraq drew a bleak picture of the situation in his country. The education system deteriorated to a critical point following the war of 2003 with over 250 educators assassinated and many hundreds more disappeared.

From 2003 to 2008 there were 31,598 attacks against educational institutions. In 2005 50,000 children dropped out of school and large numbers of students and teachers fled the country altogether. School construction stopped in 1991and 70 per cent of rural schools are currently in need of improvement. All schools lack basic equipment including science facilities.

Students suffered the suspension of classes for weeks at a time, the replacement of lecturers by recent graduates and a decline in the quality of education. School yards have been reportedly been used for the launching of mortar rounds and classrooms as torture chambers with students returning to bloodstained classrooms.

The UNESCO National Education Support Strategy for Iraq published in April 2008 shows more than 2 million primary age children do not attend school as a result of both poverty and lack of security. Youth account for 70 per cent of the unemployed in Iraq and there are 5 million illiterate.

The conference examined the legal framework of the right to education in conflict situations, the media’s role in advocating that right, humanitarian responses and post-conflict reconstruction in the education sector. A series of workshops focussed on five themes identified as priorities: access to quality basic education; protection of Iraqi intellectuals, students and educational institutions; issues facing Iraqi universities; displaced persons in Iraq and the implications of internal displacement for the Iraqi education system; educational issues facing refugees in neighbouring countries and their implications for education in Iraq.

Outcomes include a resolution to be drafted and submitted to the UN General Assembly calling for increased monitoring of Iraqi educational institutions, personnel and students and full compliance with international law in this area; a medium-term action plan to address crucial issues facing the education sector in Iraq; and a detailed plan of action to assist the Iraqi authorities in the short-term.

UNESCO has been supporting the education sector in Iraq with the provision of equipment and capacity-building. To allow children and teachers to follow the school curriculum through distance learning, UNESCO and the Education Minister of Iraq launched the Iraqi Educational TV Channel, IRAQI EDU. The $6.5 million project, is financed by the European Union as part of their overall support for the sector in Iraq.

The 24-hour channel (NILESAT at 10775 Hz) broadcasts educational episodes based on the Iraqi school curricula and designed for primary and secondary school students both within and outside of Iraq. UNESCO’s participation focuses on building the capacities of programming staff and ministry participants, as well as equipping the ministry’s focal satellite unit.

Speaking at the opening and closing events, Director-General of UNESCO Mr Koichiro Matsuura paid tribute to Her Highness Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser Al-Missned of Qatar, UNESCO Special Envoy for Basic and Higher Education, for her generous support to the conference. One of her first acts as envoy was to help set up the International Fund for Higher Education in Iraq, with a first donation of US$15 million.



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