For nearly two years, Women’s Advisory Boards (WABs) in five Iraqi provinces have been assessing the unique needs of women and girls, implementing gender-sensitive community projects, and offering advice to local authorities in order to ensure that gendered perspectives are included in decision-making processes. Now, after months of researching how families in their communities are impacted by inequalities in their education systems, the WABs are developing recommendations to help increase access to education.
Established in 2019 in the provinces of Anbar, Diyala, Kirkuk, Ninewa, and Salahaddin, the WABs are citizen councils, each composed of about 15 women from all walks of life. In October 2020, the WABs identified specific policy issues related to education and began assessing the needs of their communities. With coaching from NDI, the WABs not only reviewed policies and best practices, but also conducted key informant interviews and focus group discussions to understand first-hand experiences. They met with local decision makers, government officials, education personnel, parents, students, and former students who had dropped out, among others.
Many of the WAB members were new to qualitative research, but according to a woman from Salahaddin, "We learned how to identify the issue, deepen our research to understand the topic, and craft recommendations. We learned with NDI how to draft questions for focus groups and key informant interviews and we hope to do advocacy supported by NDI. We learned from the Anbar group because we both faced similar issues during this project. We both live in a very conservative environment and we are subject to traditional and cultural constraints.” Despite the challenges, her confidence was increased, saying, “I learned how to convince decision-makers and bring their attention to women's priorities,” and, “We know that the change takes time but we are proud to be part of the process.”
In June 2021, WABs participated in a Policy Formulation and Advocacy Workshop organized by NDI where they drafted actionable policy recommendations to address the problems they had identified. WAB members debated with passion and conviction; many of them work in the education sector and shared first-hand experiences. They deplored the deterioration of the education system in Iraq over the past two decades, persistent gender inequalities, and widespread corruption and nepotism. They noted the importance of their efforts to elevate the needs of vulnerable Iraqis due to the absence of a culture of citizen participation in Iraq, where decision-making processes are top-down, opaque and male-dominated.
The WABs from Anbar and Salahaddin focused on the underrepresentation of female students in technical and vocational education and training (TVET) in specific districts in their provinces. The WABs recommended opening all-girls vocational schools in Fallujah (Anbar) and Samarra (Salahaddin) to enable more girls to develop skills in mechanics, electronics and maintenance of medical equipment. The WABs also suggested increasing the college admission rates of TVET students by relaxing the required scores (currently 90%) for TVET graduates, which discourages girls from choosing the TVET sector. As one of the women from Salahaddin, explained, “The project helped me a lot. I was ignoring much information in the field of vocational education, but having the opportunity to meet different stakeholders and decision-makers through the focus groups and interviews helped me understand … the gaps in our system — mainly the gender gaps. I also learned that vocational education is a very important stage in the education system as it prepares our students to be future leaders in society, and the state should pay more attention to the system.”
The WABs from Diyala and Kirkuk focused on decreasing school dropout rates among primary and secondary school students from marginalized communities. They recommended providing students with free stationary, uniforms, food, transportation, and periodic medical examinations, including teaching girls and boys about sexual and reproductive health. They also advocated for a module on human rights in the curriculum, with training for teachers on human rights, ethics and civics. They suggested opening classes specifically for students with special needs. And they recommended establishing monitoring and evaluation committees to prevent teachers from taking advantage of families financially through a practice in which teachers encourage students to pay for tutoring in order to keep up with material that should be taught in class — a violation of Iraqi law, which prohibits teachers from seeking such personal benefits from their profession.
The Ninewa WAB focused on the unequal professional training and capacity-building opportunities for female administrative staff in the education sector in Mosul. They proposed shifting to online training to accommodate the needs of pregnant women and women with health issues, as well as those with difficulty traveling due to social norms and security concerns that disproportionately impact women. They also suggested improving the employee reward system by issuing certificates and letters of support after employees complete courses, as evidence of their professional development.
As the WABs finalize policy briefs to present their recommendations, they will also develop advocacy plans and meet with local decision makers to advise them. The way in which the WABs are advancing their recommendations is crucial because they are addressing issues too often neglected by male-dominated institutions, and WAB members are able to elevate perspectives not often heard in the halls of power. The WABs have made clear that in addition to contributing to improving access to education and learning opportunities for Iraqis, especially women and girls, they aspire to build a society that is more just and inclusive — and they want a better future for their children, grandchildren and the generations to come.
This program is implemented with funding from the Government of Canada.
NDI is a non-profit, non-partisan, non-governmental organization that works in partnership around the world to strengthen and safeguard democratic institutions, processes, norms and values to secure a better quality of life for all. NDI envisions a world where democracy and freedom prevail, with dignity for all.