Since 2003, Mercy Corps has worked to improve the lives of millions of people in Iraq. Our largest program is in the south of the country, and focuses on community building and good governance. Our Community Action Program (CAP) gives communities the tools to organize and advocate for their most pressing needs, and builds the capacity of local government to respond effectively to those needs. With our help, we hope local citizens will have a voice and an impact in shaping the new Iraq.
One of CAP’s most successful initiatives is our Women’s Inclusion Program. Since its inception in 2005, approximately 20,000 women of all ages have learned basic literacy skills — reading, writing and arithmetic — and have received education on preventative health care and good hygiene practices, food/nutrition, democracy and peace building, human and women’s rights, and the environment. Through this program, we aim to give women the skills to improve their lives and participate meaningfully in their communities and government. At the end of the program, they are prepared to sit for primary school exams; young women of school age can re-enter the public school system and complete their education, while older women will be better positioned to seek employment or manage their households.
I recently paid a visit to a literacy center in the southern city of Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city, located near the Persian Gulf. The center was located in a run-down school. The screens were shredded off the windows, the room was not air-conditioned and was extremely uncomfortable in the late afternoon heat, and the 60 or so women and girls were crowded into a tiny 10x10' room, 3 or 4 to a bench. They ranged from age four to age 60, and were in their final class session before completing the program.
My colleagues and I were introduced to the group, and one of our staff translated a question to them: "How has this program changed your life?" Immediately, a beautiful, precocious-looking girl of about 13 shot out of her seat with her hand in the air. "Before this program it was like I was blind. Everywhere I went, I didn't know what I was seeing. Now that I can read, I can see." Someone else called out, "I can teach my children to read and write, and I can help the older ones with their schoolwork." Another woman, about 40 years old, stood up and said, "I used to go to the market and would have to ask a shop owner for the price of items. Because I had to ask, he would say to himself, 'This is an illiterate woman,' and he'd quote me a higher price. Now that I can read the prices of items myself, I get a better price because the bartering starts lower."
A coworker asked how many women were planning to vote in Iraq’s national elections in January. Almost every hand in the room was raised.
The teacher — a small, energetic woman of about 30 — invited us to sit and listen to their lesson. The class had just finished writing down what "human rights" meant to them. They resumed the lesson by bringing their definitions up to the front of the room and taping them on the blackboard. When all had finished, the teacher began reading them aloud:
"My children will be free and can get an education."
"I can find a job."
"Everyone will have enough to eat."
"We will be able to vote."
We rose, and through our colleague's translation, conveyed our congratulations to these women, and our pride at what they had accomplished. I cannot imagine people more brave, who have overcome so much, as the women in that room. They have experienced nearly thirty years of unimaginable war, poverty, hunger, and tragedy. To simply attend one class would be full of obstacles: They would have to summon the courage to accept their illiteracy and decide to make a major life change. They would have to convince their husbands, their fathers, their brothers, and uncles to let them leave the house to go to a class where they'd inevitably learn skills to be independent and exercise their intellect. They'd have to show up every week, after completing all their household responsibilities, and have the resolve to master the challenge of learning to read and write, their first academic pursuit of any kind.
It was hard not to cry as I looked at their faces, young and old, and know that, given the chance, the women in that room were the seeds of a new Iraq. Let us hope they have the freedom and the inclination to flourish, to be empowered by their newfound knowledge, and to finally be able to stand up and help bring their country to peace and stability.