Civic Education Information Service for Female Iraqi Leaders
Country Profile: Iraq
|Poverty (Population living on less than US$ 1.25 per day)|
|Total Expenditure on Education as % of GDP|
|Access to Primary Education – Total Net Intake Rate (NIR)|
|Total Youth Literacy Rate (15-24 years)|
Total: 82.4% (UIS estimation)
|Adult Literacy Rate (15 years and over)|
Total: 78.5 % (UIS estimation)
|Programme Title||Civic Education Information Service for Female Iraqi Leaders|
|Implementing Organization||Souktel (technology provider) in partnership with Mercy Corps (aid agency)|
|Language of Instruction||Arabic|
|Date of Inception||September 2010 (Souktel); March 2011 (Mercy Corps); duration for Mercy Corps: 18 months|
Country Context and Background
Despite the existence of compulsory education in Iraq lasting six years, from age six to 11, it is estimated that between 20% and 25% of the Iraqi adult population is illiterate (National Strategic Framework for Literacy, 2011): 1,289,851 men and 2,724,377 women (UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 2011). Women living in rural areas account for the majority, with half unable to read or write. In urban areas and major cities the illiteracy rate among women is lower, at between 28% and 30%.
There are barriers to adult literacy education. Most literacy tutors are teachers in formal schools who have not been trained to teach adults, and who do not receive any incentives for additional teaching hours. In addition, there are not enough literacy centres across Iraq and only a limited number of school buildings in some areas are available for adult literacy classes. This situation is exacerbated by the influx of Syrian refugees coming to Iraq, especially to Kirkuk in the north. Male voices still dominate many communities, and political instability has made travel between towns difficult. Together with the insecure state of the country in general, these factors make it particularly challenging for women to get around and communicate with their peers ¬– which creates further barriers to improving literacy skills.
From 2000 to 2010 the Iraqi Ministry of Education conducted a campaign called “Illiteracy Free Kurdistan” and taught around 340,000 Iraqis from the Kurdistan region (northern Iraq) how to read and write. With the Literacy Initiative for Empowerment (LIFE), launched by the ministries of education in Baghdad and Erbil, the Iraqi government, in cooperation with the UNESCO Office for Iraq, aims to reduce illiteracy by 50% by 2015. Despite these efforts to decrease the comparatively high illiteracy rate, the Iraqi government has not yet achieved universal access to basic education and skills. Because of a lack of coordination among all parties, funding for literacy programmes remains scattered between civil society organisations and governmental institutions. In addition, a major barrier to female Iraqis acquiring basic literacy skills is the limited opportunity for interaction with – and positive reinforcement from – female peers. This has limited progress toward national goals for improving female literacy rates.
In response to these challenges, the social enterprise Souktel and aid agency Mercy Corps launched a mobile phone information service for female leaders in Iraq to mitigate the isolated situation in which women in rural areas often find themselves. The common use of mobile phones is seen as a key means of increasing information exchange among women and of enhancing literacy, numeracy, and civic participation.
The Civic Education Information Service for Female Iraqi Leaders was launched by Souktel and international development agency Mercy Corps, as part of Mercy Corps’ Empowering Women Peace Builders project.
Souktel is a social enterprise – a technology company which has a non-profit branch. The organisation began in response to what its team saw as a prevalent problem in Middle Eastern countries such as Iraq. Young people were leaving school with limited understanding of employment opportunities. They lacked resources they could consult and schools were not preparing them with any type of information. Souktel’s intention was to make use of the mobile technology which most young people were already using, and to provide information about jobs and training through text messages on their mobile phones.
While focusing on specific components of their work, Souktel quickly grew into several other areas, such as education, economic growth and gender equality. They discovered that the same technology used to help young people find jobs could easily be applied in fields such as civic engagement and connecting women in leadership positions. The organisation now aims to deliver a wide range of mobile phone services which give low-income communities the information they need to improve their lives. The rationale for the mobile services which support Mercy Corps’ “Empowering Women Peace Holders” and “Supporting Effective Advocacy for Marginalized Groups” projects is to connect female community members in leadership positions in rural regions of Iraq with peers or mentors in other parts of the country.
Mercy Corps’ activities within the programme are intended to support women leaders in becoming more self-confident and empowered in voicing women’s rights. As they improve their skills and competencies in terms of leadership, advocacy, networking and communication, they also become more pro-active in effecting social change. In order to better communicate among themselves and with others, and to share information and experiences, women leaders continuously seek to strengthen their networks, and use information and communication technologies (ICTs) intensively. Consolidating their relationships with policymakers, they contribute constructively to debates and decision-making processes on gender issues, promoting Iraqi women’s empowerment agenda. They develop strong linkages with the media, largely to publicise women’s rights, issues and concerns.
Before this programme, Souktel developed “JobMatch” and “AidLink”, the Middle East’s first platforms connecting job-seekers with employers, and linking communities with aid providers via mobile phone. This programme uses similar mobile technology but with a different objective. As many women in leadership positions live far away from each other in remote areas, Souktel created a platform called PeerNet which enables local leaders of women's groups to send each other news and information by text message. This helps to develop communication and build a network for solving problems through sharing information without the need to travel. Thanks to the platform, the members can also coordinate activities such as in-person training courses, leadership events or community meetings. The technology can be used by community members without any training and works because the use of mobile phones in Iraq is cheap, prevalent, and safe within one’s own home, which is why they have become essential to improving local community relations. Any mobile-user authorised by Mercy Corps can access the platform, regardless of their mobile network. Every incoming text message is free while the user pays five US cents or less to send a message, but does not have to pay a registration fee.
The programme’s objectives were achieved through:
- building the capacity of women leaders working at a grassroots level, through mobile technology and, where possible, in-person training;
- encouraging them to work together in support of common civic goals; and
- promoting effective public education and advocacy actions in support of women’s rights.
Reaching and Training Learners
Mercy Corps delivers training on civic engagement in local communities, and on a range of related topics, and is in charge of the service’s content. Forty Iraqi women leaders from all backgrounds participated in a series of training workshops to build their skills and knowledge in leadership, advocacy, communication, media, women’s rights, networking and coalition-building. After completing the training, the women leaders’ network identified a common strategy to promote a national public education campaign on women’s rights and advocacy. Through this campaign each female leader reached at least 300 members of their grassroots community, 1,200 individuals through the media and 15 different policymakers.
Network members had a ceiling of USD 1,000 per individual for advocacy and awareness activities. The participants had the freedom to design their activities. Examples could include university information campaigns, women’s rights training, public events, and awareness-raising campaigns. Participant activities were aligned with the strategy, action plan and key messages identified during the network meetings. These activities, and the number of community members and decision-makers reached through them, contributed to overall targets for the wider Mercy Corps-supported advocacy campaign for women’s rights. Designated activities commenced in the ninth month of the programme.
The technology developed by Souktel supported in-person training delivered by Mercy Corps and carried this content. The continuous contact through text messaging can be considered as a follow-up learning effect, because of the knowledge shared via mobile which supported face-to-face training and interaction.
Enrolment and Activities of Users
The participating women were strategically positioned leaders running widely respected community organisations. Most of them have a mobile phone and use it on a daily basis. They have connections to local and provincial policy- and decision-makers, but still needed assistance and knowledge in how to effectively leverage their connections to advocate for women’s rights.
The users sign up for the service by themselves, becoming members of a specific group with a specific topic of interest. This group is not open to the public, which means they can safely share information with other members in a trustworthy environment.
To take part in the programme, the women have to be literate in Arabic (in order to handle writing messages) and be in a community leadership position. The programme helps the women understand how the government, finances and community structures work. It enables members to improve their literacy skills, through regular text messaging, while learning more about these key concepts.
The women also had access to an online Facebook page and obtained personal coaching from mentors, which supported their coordination efforts, served as a reference for information about rights and also provided them with advice on effective advocacy and leadership. The female leaders were also able to make use of a pool of more than 20,000 SMS messages, which enabled them to receive information on all of these topics via mobile.
Monitoring and Evaluation
Mercy Corps initiated several activities to monitor and evaluate the programme’s progress and success. For the former, they developed an evaluation plan and, for the latter, an outcome journal. The use of outcome planning meant that progress could better be measured. Moreover, they customised a strategy log as well as a performance log.
The performance monitoring plan and approach were the primary tools used to assess whether the programme was achieving the expected results. It was consistent with the DRL (Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor) Monitoring and Evaluation Primer and was revised by Mercy Corps in consultation with DRL at the programme start-up. For support, existing baseline surveys were available, a mid-term review was conducted in order to make necessary course corrections, and a final survey measured overall impact. The mid-term review and the final assessment included an external, independent evaluation in order to ensure that results were objectively verified. The independent evaluator used the baseline data collected through a Personal Capacity Index to monitor and evaluate the performance of the women advocates and the outcomes throughout the life of the project.
The use of PeerNet technology was the main innovation within this programme. It allows women to connect on an efficient basis and provides information which was previously out of reach for service users. The software platform allows users to create labelled mailing lists containing a selection of phone numbers, so that many peers can be reached simultaneously with a single text message. That means that if a woman needs support or wants to gather ideas for a certain activity, other women with experience in the same working area can contribute their suggestions to the discussion. This feature can also be used to organise workshops, seminars, and small community projects via SMS.
Assessment of the Learners
The mobile platform also allowed Mercy Corps to conduct polls addressing local women and girls on specific issues, giving them the chance to voice their views and opinions and to give feedback on their training. For the evaluation of the feedback and training activities, the results could then be transferred to a SPSS or Excel document. Souktel does not measure the improvement of participants’ literacy skills directly, but uses frequency of service use as a proxy for assessing changes in literacy: If women use the service more frequently, this is believed to correlate with an increase in literacy rates.
Programme Impact and Challenges
Impact and Achievements
Mobile phones enable marginalised or rural users to communicate in real time, without the need for travel or in-person meetings, which saves time and resources and allows more people to be reached. These advantages constituted key benefits for the Mercy Corps programme. The mobile phone information service also contributes to a larger objective of Mercy Corps in northern Iraq – to equip more than 26,000 Iraqi women and girls with information about democracy and women’s rights.
Impact on Working Processes
By means of a mobile phone, female leaders can easily access resources and information from other service users. For example, if a local school director wants to set up a programme, such as peace-building for girls from different ethnic or religious backgrounds, she can contact her peers to ask them for help and suggestions. Consequently, she can take advantage of her colleagues’ knowledge and experiences regarding, for example, resources, potential participants and safe places to hold the meetings. This procedure has turned out to be an extremely effective way for women to exchange and stay connected. Before the programme started, many women in leadership positions in northern Iraq worked without the help of a cell phone, which limited their options for social networking and community participation.
Impact on Women
The programme increases women’s awareness of how the government and other communities work, giving women in rural areas an equal opportunity to engage in political and social spheres. Souktel reports that participants are less isolated and that there was a notable increase of the frequency of communication between female service-users and their peers.
“I never understood how information can help build solidarity as I do now. I believe that women united by a dream for peace and connected though technology can truly change their communities for the better.”
Female service user, northern Iraq
The financial costs of running the programme was an issue, as was the deteriorating economic situation of Iraqi households, which has resulted in the prioritisation of essential goods such as food and medicine over literacy. In these circumstances, and given the unstable security situation, questions can be raised about users’ ability to pay for mobile messaging over time. Prevailing cultural norms are also a challenge for programme implementation, since, in many local communities, women do not have the same rights as men. This is especially true in rural areas, where communities are already isolated from technological developments and internet connection. These realities suggest that, in many cases, it may be difficult for women even to learn about the availability of the PeerNet service, let alone to access it.
Learning from Experience
When setting up this service, Souktel was able to make good use of the substantial experience it had already gained from developing appropriate technology and the implementation process of similar programmes.
Role of Women
Women are seen as the key to building stronger communities, although, in traditional family settings, their families may limit their mobility and participation in the labour force. Making it possible for them to connect with peers via mobile phones is a crucial step forward in developing stronger communities. The enhanced information flow which results from mobile use is helping and empowering the women to build up a strong network. As a result, they have the opportunity to effect social change.
Easy Application and Access
Not every young woman can access mobile technology, due to social or income constraints. However, mobile technology can help young women to gather information from the safety of their homes – which, in this case, poses a major advantage. Keeping the applications accessible to basic mobile handsets, Souktel has facilitated the participation of young women, because the software can be used even on a simple mobile phone and there is no need for web access or smartphones. Moreover, the platform is made available across all existing mobile network providers.
Communication Enhances Education
The women learn rapidly from regular exchange with their peers and are able to build up a comprehensive knowledge base, both on civic issues and in the area of general functional literacy. Periodic in-person contact with trainers encourages female leaders to keep on track with their current tasks and take part in further training.
The launch of this service in Iraq coincides with the growing trend toward mobile applications for women in the developing world. Souktel is expanding in response to great demand for the technology services it is developing and providing. The process of providing information to a certain target audience is strategically important as it has many applications, from “how and where to hold a meeting” to “informing parents about a critical security situation”. Accordingly, through a low-cost, long-term knowledge-sharing mechanism, the work of group learning and training is sustained.
Once the platform was set up, with funding from Mercy Corps, maintaining it did not prove costly. Running costs were kept to a minimum. While the cost of text messages sent by women to the service is a key financial consideration, these costs are no greater than those related to everyday mobile phone messaging. The service can, therefore, be considered financially sustainable.
- UNESCO (2011) National Strategic Framework for Literacy in Iraq
- UNESCO Office for Iraq (2011) UNESCO Praises the Iraqi Parliament for Approval of the New Literacy Law (web page) (accessed 10 March 2014)
- Souktel (2010) Iraqi Women's Groups Use SMS to Strengthen Communities (press release) (accessed 10 March 2014)
- Souktel (2011) Souktel and Mercy Corps Launch Iraq SMS Women's Info Service (press release) (accessed 10 March 2014)
- Souktel (2013) Five Easy Ways You Can Use Mobile Tech to Enhance Youth Livelihoods Projects (accessed 10 March 2014)