The 2019 October Revolution in Iraq marked a new chapter for Iraqi youth; and while protesters took to the streets demanding government change and accountability, the political class still struggles to fulfill a critical aspect of political development — organized youth political participation. As frustration continued to mount among Iraqi youth, and while recognizing the need for space for youth to build their capacity and navigate political party leadership and decision-making processes, the National Democratic Institute (NDI) launched the Hassa Shabab “It’s Time For Youth” program — a youth political leadership academy formed to help Iraqi youth access the necessary channels to translate their demands raised during the widespread anti-government protests into effective institutional change.
In February 2020, Hassa Shabab participants from Iraq’s 18 provinces began implementing advocacy campaigns to address key thematic issues that cross the political and societal spectrum, including integrity and transparency, connecting citizens with decision-makers, women’s political participation, coexistence, political party reforms, and electoral participation. Hassa Shabab participants organized more than 30 activities, including dialogue sessions, meetings, and online sessions that reached more than 600 citizens and internally displaced persons and more than 20 decision-makers, election office directors, various government and political party officials, members from the advisory board in the Presidency of the Council of Ministers, and representatives from the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC).
For a country that has dealt with continued government corruption — corruption which has bled into the election system — Iraqi youth from three of the six thematic groups decided to address the upcoming Parliamentary elections, with a focus on the new election law and the importance of youth and women’s participation. Participants from the electoral participation group dedicated their efforts to organizing a social media campaign called Siyasa “Politics” 56 to educate youth on the new electoral law and on the importance of participating in the electoral process.
Iraqi youth are currently struggling to maintain advocacy efforts for election participation due to the long-running targeted attacks against critics of the government, including journalists and activists. And while concern over individual safety is at an all-time high, Hassa Shabab participants from the integrity and transparency group aimed to educate youth on election malpractice and the effect of youth participation to induce pressure on the government for election integrity and transparency. The discussion sessions hosted a number of local decision-makers and played a critical role in fostering dialogue between citizens and local government.
Women’s political participation has faced several roadblocks; due to societal norms, violence against women in politics, domestic violence, and a dramatic decrease in women’s education, concern over the progress in women’s rights became a focal point for the women’s political participation group. The group successfully designed a number of trainings and discussion sessions to teach participants key issues that women face and methods of overcoming them, including organization of advocacy campaigns to defend women’s rights, opening literacy centers, and hosting recurring townhalls that address women’s needs. The women participants’ organizational efforts caught local media attention, and they were asked to introduce their advocacy project to start the conversation of youth political advocacy efforts. As one participant pointed out, it is not common to see young women in her community participating and hosting events about the elections. “I belong to a conservative province where women don’t have the opportunity to play a meaningful role in society, and when I organized dialogue sessions with two other female participants in Hassa Shabab, it caught media attention.”
Hassa Shabab members who come from minority communities in Iraq coordinated with the coexistence group and began hosting dialogue sessions with youth and women on coexistence, peacebuilding, and methods to conduct advocacy work. One participant from a Christian community in Ninewa said that the program strengthens his advocacy skills, which will allow him to defend the rights of minorities.
Other Hassa Shabab members from the political party reforms and connecting citizens with decision-makers groups addressed the underlying issue of a lack of connection between decision-makers, and emphasized the importance of youth representation in political parties. Members from the political party reforms group met with several political parties to address the importance of youth in the political process. And while political party representatives agreed to meet with Hassa Shabab members to discuss reforms in their approach toward youth, many political parties highlighted the lack of active response to such issues within their political party at large. The COVID-19 crisis also amplified the responsibility for political parties to engage with citizens, as they used lockdown measures to defer any youth engagement. Nonetheless, members of the group were satisfied with their level of engagement, as the program provided them with a platform to engage with political parties. “Such a program is important for Iraqi youth. It allows them to get in contact with the international community and with decision-makers,” said one participant from a new political party in Iraq. “Hassa Shabab allowed us to learn new skills and think of how we can contribute to the development of our country.”
Through connecting citizens to decision-makers, Hassa Shabab members were able to gain the confidence to address hot-button issues with their local and governmental decision-makers. “Before participating in the Hassa Shabab program, I was unable to engage with people in discussions because I only had vague knowledge about how parties operate and how to influence decision-makers. Today, I am more confident to talk about hot topics, about democracy and politics.”
Hassa Shabab members, now with the necessary experience and tools, have also begun engaging outside of the program with their local communities and decision-makers, affecting change and addressing their needs for the future of Iraq. Despite many roadblocks, such as corruption, lack of engagement with youth, and gender-based violence, Iraqi youth still remain hopeful of change. Knowing this is their only home, they have shown the Iraqi community time and time again that they will continue to fight for their rights.
This program is implemented with funding from the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.
Author: Maryam Alhassani is a Program Assistant with the MENA Team at NDI.