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For a young Iraqi woman, a second chance to learn and grow

© UNICEF/Iraq-07/Arar
A young woman works for her primary school certificate in southern Iraq.

By Claire Hajaj and Ban Dhayi

WASSIT, Iraq, 9 March 2007 ─ In a small classroom in southern Iraq, Reem (not her real name), 22, is bent over her books. The stifling air is making it hard to concentrate, but she is determined to finish the lesson. She knows the few hours she spends here could determine the course of the rest of her life.

This is Reem’s second chance to finish primary school, 12 years after she thought she had to leave learning behind forever.

The journey back to the classroom has been the most challenging of Reem’s life. Born into a poor family, she left school at the age of 10 to help her mother manage the house and look after her younger siblings. She married while still a teenager.

Tragic turn of events

In 2004, Reem’s life took a tragic turn. Two weeks after she gave birth to her first baby, her husband left to buy medicine for their daughter and never returned. Three weeks later, his body was found in a local morgue – another casualty of the indiscriminate violence fracturing Iraq’s families.

“I did not know what to do,” says Reem. “I married at 17 and had no means of support other than my husband. My daughter was just 13 days old and I feared for our future.”

Reem returned to her family, but found little relief there. Household resources were already stretched to the limit, with nine people squeezing into one small apartment. Reem’s father and brothers were all jobless. The family’s only income was generated by her mother, who worked as both a seamstress and a midwife to make ends meet.

© UNICEF/Iraq-07/Arar
Many Iraqi students in the UNICEF-supported Accelerated Learning Programme are married and have young children.

One day, Reem and her parents received a visit from the principal of the local girls’ school, who had a surprising proposition.

“She told us about a new learning opportunity supported by UNICEF, called the Accelerated Learning Programme,” Reem says. “It was for boys and girls who are working or have family problems preventing them from joining regular school. Other girls in the neighbourhood had been talking about this programme, and I hoped so much that I could join.”

A crucial alternative

The Accelerated Learning Programme (ALP) offers a second chance to young people who left the education system prematurely, allowing them to attend lessons outside normal school hours and even sit for their final exams. Launched by UNICEF and the Ministry of Education in 2005, the innovative programme has become one of Iraq’s most successful and inspiring education initiatives.

Over 14,000 young people passed their primary and intermediate exams in 2006 thanks to ALP. This year 22,000 are enroled.

Non-formal learning opportunities such as ALP are a crucial alternative for many of Iraq’s young people. The country’s education standards have been declining since the mid-1990s as a result of years of economic deprivation and chronic under-investment. Most of the children who leave school early are girls.

And with the current violence and displacement putting even more pressure on families, attendance rates are falling.

Securing her future

Reem’s ‘class’ included students of all ages, some of them also mothers of young children. ALP classes are held in the afternoon, making them suitable for young women who have children to look after or morning chores to do. Students are provided with basic educational materials such as stationery, textbooks and backpacks.

Reem and her fellow students have now graduated to the intermediate curriculum. ALP is helping them get critical qualifications, giving them support to cope with difficult and sometimes traumatic life events, and boosting their self-esteem.

Now that her daughter is two years old, Reem knows she must strive to secure her future. For the first time in years, she believes this might be possible.

“The ALP is my golden chance,” says Reem, who wants to be a teacher when she completes her studies. “Today I hope that I can obtain a normal school degree that helps me find a decent job. I can relieve the burden on my mother and give my daughter a good future – something I could not have achieved without a school certificate.”



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