Iraq: the newly literate speak out

UNESCO Iraq - illiterate woman writing on the blackboard in a literacy class

“I was full of sadness and despair when I watched children of my age going to school…Days went on while I worked in the car wash, looking at the words written on the car windows without understanding their meaning” says Muath.

Muath is one of over 50 newly literate students participating in UNESCO literacy programmes in Iraq who speak out for the first time in The Power of Literacy: Stories from Iraq. This UNESCO-published collection is a testimony and tribute to the importance of literacy, giving concrete examples of the positive changes literacy can effect in individual lives.  

The isolation felt by those who were denied basic schooling because of economic necessities is summed up by Ahmed, who felt that he “…became like a blind man who only sees himself but not the things around him.”  

Blindness as a metaphor for illiteracy is a recurring theme in these testimonies. Taimaa speaks of her humiliation at the hospital when she was “…like a blind person who could barely go anywhere” because she couldn’t read sign posts: “Once, when I went to the ophthalmologist and told him that my eyes hurt at night, he shouted at me and said “This is not an ophthalmologist, this is a dentist.” 

Beyond the improvement of their condition, students speak of “a new life”. Sumaea, who is 65 years old and disabled, wanted to learn to read to entertain herself while sick; after becoming literate, she concludes: “Now reading is my friend and I always enjoy it.” 

Rand pictures her time as illiterate as “a dark time” she left behind her – as she puts it, now she is “like a blind person who has regained sight.” Wassan goes so far as to describe illiteracy as an evil spirit dispelled by his learning: “the ghost of illiteracy has now gone away.”  

The extent of illiteracy in Iraq remains problematic: the national illiteracy rate is estimated at 22%, with women in rural areas being particularly affected due to a lack of infrastructures. However, the Iraqi Ministry of Education has implemented large-scale policies in recent years, partnering with UNESCO to meet the  Education For All (EFA) goals. The Ministry and national NGOs have been raising public awareness of the importance of literacy, with activities such as the awarding of prizes to outstanding literacy students, television spots and outreach to the most vulnerable communities in poor rural areas. 

UNESCO’s experience in developing infrastructures to meet post-conflict educational needs complements the Iraqi government’s work, with endeavours such as the Literacy Initiative for Empowerment (LIFE) for Iraq, wherein UNESCO provides advice, expertise, and develops literacy materials and curricula; UNESCO also assisted with the establishment of four Community Learning Centres in the Baghdad, Al-Muthanna and Dyala governorates. 

“Illiteracy is one of main challenges that the Government of Iraq and its counterparts are facing to ensure the reform process at all levels of education” says Mohamed Djelid, Director of the UNESCO Iraq Office, adding that “the Government of Iraq with the support of UNESCO has developed a national vision and detailed policy responding to the critical and immediate needs of Iraqi illiterates”.

Asma finishes the story of her newfound literacy on a high note, saying that the most important change in her life was learning to read: “I could tell the time and use the mobile phone. I became independent without having to seek assistance from anyone. I could read letters, newspapers and magazines… I could use my rights as a citizen.” This collection of personal stories of empowerment is a forceful reminder of achievements and of work to come.  A similar collection published in 2009 is composed of stories from Afghan students, and another is in preparation for South Sudan.

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