Kurdish women struggle to advance

Women in Iraq’s Kurdistan are using the relative calm in their region to make slow progress towards equal status with men – but there is still a long way to go, according to activists.
Abuse by men pushed 538 women to commit suicide last year, according to Sara Qader, a journalist with the weekly Awina newspaper.
“Some of these women are still facing violence from their husbands or families and honour killings still exist in some rural areas of Kurdistan. These forced 538 women to commit suicide in 2006 alone,” Qader said.
She added that non-governmental agencies advocating women’s rights have had no impact. “Some of these women’s organisations are affiliated to political parties and that makes it more difficult for women to advance and have rights equal to those of men,” Qader said.
Kurdish women have 29 seats in the Kurdistan parliament and three portfolios.
“But as a tribal society, social pressures are still being applied by men on the women which keep them from getting their rights,” said Parwa Ali, a social researcher and activist.
However, there is hope – 24 years ago, poverty forced Afrah Abdullah to abandon her education to help her family. Now the 34-year-old mother-of-four is returning to school to continue her studies.
“My father died when I was 10 and as I was the eldest of my three sisters, I had to abandon school to help my mother to sew to earn our living,” Abdullah said.
“It is really embarrassing when someone doesn’t know how to read or write. I couldn’t even follow up on my children’s education,” she added.
Social restrictions, war and population displacement deprived Abdullah and many other Kurds in northern Iraq of an education as children.
Omed Kaka Rash, director of the Illiteracy Eradication Programme in the Kurdistan Regional Government, said 27 percent of people over the age of 10 are classed as illiterate in Kurdistan – 281,992 women and 446,668 men.
"A broader literacy campaign is under way in Kurdistan now and everyone who is illiterate will be able to read and write within the next three years," Rash said.
"Kurdistan's education ministry is providing textbooks, desks and other materials, and will recognise the school's leaving certificate, meaning graduates will be able to go on to higher education," she added.
The schools accept women regardless of age and put them on an accelerated learning programme where, for example, the standard primary school course of six years is cut to three.
Most of the adult education facilities are in the city of Suleimaniyah, about 350km north of Baghdad.
Now, tens of illiterate women are joining the Accelerated Learning School in Chamchamal, a poor town 60km south of Suleimaniyah.
“I feel as if I'm coming back to life again; being illiterate is something like being blind, dumb or paralysed,” said Maryam Salih, a 34-year-old mother of three.
“We were a poor family and my father couldn't afford send me to school. I will continue studying until I finish school and get a job so I can earn my own income and help my husband," she added.