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Education and Conflict in Iraq

Education and Conflict in Iraq

Elizabeth Buckner, Research Associate, EPDC

Over the past few weeks, the rapid and seemingly uncontested movement of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS, also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL) has made international headlines, as a small band of Islamic extremists numbering in the thousands was able to occupy large swaths of northern Iraq, including Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. They also briefly threatened Kirkuk, its major oil-producer.  

While the al-Maliki government in Baghdad has been unable or unwilling to stop ISIS militarily and the international community debates its intervention options, the Kurdish independent militia has successfully resisted ISIS’ invasion, with important cities in areas with many Kurds, including Kirkuk, changing hands between ISIS and Kurdish militias numerous times. The Kurds have successfully reclaimed Kirkuk. 



The Kurds in Comparison

Education helps to tell the story of how and why the Kurds are so willing to fight to maintain control of their autonomy – since being given autonomy over their provinces, Kurdish regions have thrived, even while the rest of the country suffered from a series of international conflicts, sanctions and civil wars. 

Under Saddam Hussein, the Kurds were punished for their political activism. In the late 1980s, the Saddam Hussein regime waged an all-out war on Kurdish regions, as homes and communities were destroyed and many Kurds were forced to flee or face death. And in 1988, poison gas was used against the Kurdish town of Halabjah, killing thousands. 

Children born in the Kurdistan regions of Iraq in the 1980s were the least likely to have completed primary school of anywhere in the country. Only 40% of Iraqis who were 15 years old in 1991 had completed primary school in the Kurdish province of Dohuk, compared to almost 80% of those born in Baghdad. This low percentage is in part due to the blatant human rights violations occurring in the Saddam era, but educational policies that privileged the use of Arabic, rather than Kurdish, are also a contributing factor. 

In 1992, the Kurds gained autonomy over three Northern provinces (i.e., Dohuk, Erbil, As-Sulmeniya). Since 1992, the Kurdish regions of Iraq have been autonomous and largely self-governing. They have translated educational materials into Kurdish and the language has been used as the medium of instruction in both primary and secondary school. Slowly, their educational attainment began to rise throughout the 1990s.

Meanwhile, in the 1990s, the rest of Iraq faced severe international sanctions in the wake of the Gulf War that devastated the country economically. While education completion rates increased in Kurdish regions, they actually declined in the 1990s for other provinces. 

The first decade of the 2000s has not been much better for Iraqi children -- since the US-invasion in 2003 and the post-2006 civil war that has ravaged the country, primary completion rates throughout Iraq have continued to fall. As a result a child born in 1996, who was 15 in 2011, was actually less likely to have graduated primary school than one born twenty years earlier every province of Iraq except the autonomous Kurdish regions. Meanwhile, primary completion rates in the Kurdish regions grew by 36-38% percentage points – up to 92% in Sulemaniya from 54% in 1991.  

Take Away

The story is clear – the succession of conflicts in Iraq since the 1980s has been devastating for children and educational attainment in Iraq. Even while the international community is focused on increasing access to, and completion of, primary schooling worldwide primary completion rates have actually fallen throughout most of Iraq. 

At the same time, Kurdish regions have flourished with autonomy. They went from being the most marginalized regions of the nation to the most stable – and this stability has allowed them to invest in education and their children’s futures.



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