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Closing the gap: Gender-equitable access to education

Iraq, June 5, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Awatif Khalil/Mercy Corps   </span>
    A literacy student in Basra governorate completes a class exercise. Photo: Awatif Khalil/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Venus Hameed for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Literacy center teachers in Muthanna governorate undergo a training session. Teachers are trained to accommodate students of all age levels. Photo: Venus Hameed for Mercy Corps

Across the developing world, girls and women face challenges accessing education. This could be due to economic, cultural or religious constraints, but the impacts are largely similar. When girls and women are excluded from education, it impacts them on a personal level, but also affects their access to economic opportunities, their families’ livelihoods and their communities’ development.

According to a 2008 World Bank report, “educating girls is one of the most cost-effective ways of spurring development.” And this investment can be multi-generational: women who have access to education often place a greater value on it, and encourage their daughters to attend school, too. Moreover, the impact isn’t just economic or social: countries with more gender-equitable education have lower rates of infant mortality and malnutrition.

Throughout Iraq, literacy rates are at 86 percent for men over 15; that number drops to 69 percent for women in the same age range, and this is a disparity that is seen across the Middle East.

Through the USAID-funded Women’s Awareness and Inclusion (WAI) Program, hundreds of literacy centers have been opened throughout southern Iraq in recent years to try and close this gap. It is a small step, but one that has obtained remarkable results, with increasing popularity and demand, even in more conservative communities.

One unique aspect of the WAI program is how it approaches teaching a variety of students. Some women are in their 50s or 60s, attending school for the first time; some are younger teenagers, who had to leave school early to meet family obligations. The WAI program trains the literacy center teachers in how to accommodate older learners, as well as a variety of students’ skill levels.

These seemingly small steps taken by the literacy program — with centers located to provide maximum accessibility for women and girls in rural and urban communities — have a great impact in the long term, one that will be increasingly visible in the years to come.