Literacy builds confidence for women in southern Iraq


February 24, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Alisha Rodriquez/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Women studying and learning at one of Mercy Corps' Women’s Awareness and Inclusion literacy centers in Basra, Iraq. Photo: Alisha Rodriquez/Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Mercy Corps Iraq  </span>
    Eight-year-old Shayma’a (left) and her mother Samira. Photo: Mercy Corps Iraq

Girls and women in Iraq are often denied educational opportunities due to a variety of factors, ranging from cultural and economic constraints to violence and insecurity in their communities. In southern Iraq, Mercy Corps is changing those dynamics — providing an opportunity, despite these challenges, for girls and women to develop literacy and numeracy skills, and ultimately, a greater sense of independence.

Since 2005, the Women’s Awareness and Inclusion Program has been implemented through the USAID-funded Community Action Program. And in the last six years, more than 25,000 women and girls in southern Iraq have participated in the one-year literacy program that gives them the skills to read and write, and the confidence to participate fully in their communities.

The students are varied: girls who are responsible for caring for their younger siblings and can’t attend formal school; women who want to learn to read the Qu’ran; mothers who want to be able to read the signs and prices at the market; grandmothers who have never stepped into a classroom. And inevitably, these girls and women take away more from the program than the ability to read and write.

Like Shayma'a and her mother, Samira.

Shayma’a is eight years old, but she seems wise beyond her years. She has been coming with her mother Samira to a literacy center in Basra since last year.

“Ten months ago, my classmate told me that there will be a literacy center in our school building and a chance for a hundred women to learn. I went to my mother and told her to join this program, but she was feeling embarrassed. I convinced her to go and promised to go with her.”

Shayma’a used to accompany her mother everywhere because Samira needed her to read signs and help her. “But now she is able to do all these things by herself,” Shayma’a said, smiling.

Indeed, Samira, 52, is very proud of her and her daughter’s accomplishments. “This program gave me the opportunity to learn reading, writing, calculating, and improving myself in my community as a woman.” She is very grateful to the literacy center — but more than anything, to her daughter Shayma’a for opening the door to education.

Update: Hear the latest from women in the WAI program, who last month told Mercy Corps staff member Ali Hadi how the classes are changing their lives. (April 9, 2012)