The noise was deafening. I had asked a simple question — “How has the WAI programme changed your life?” — and everyone had an answer. I didn’t know what to focus on. Spoons clinked in tea glasses and the women never stopped talking. They said it was like they were imprisoned with no one to listen to their stories. One of them begged to me to tell me her tale, and when she started talking, another woman interrupted her to insist I listen to hers.
I had come to this learning centre, run by Mercy Corps’ Women’s Awareness and Inclusion (WAI) programme, to learn how literacy is impacting Iraqi women. Funded by USAID through our Community Action Programme (CAP), there are currently 5,000 women enrolled in WAI classes at 88 centers across Southern Iraq.
Through my work as a mobiliser for CAP, I see the multitude of challenges faced by women in Southern Iraq everyday. Women are often denied their rights, and even more frequently, don’t even know what they are. My colleague, Venus, suggested I visit a literacy centre to truly see the difference Mercy Corps is making in the lives of women here.
So we went to Al-Khdir district in the south of Al-Muthana province and discovered how many stories there were to be told.
A 50-year-old woman said, "At last, I could write my sons' names." Another women told me, "Now, I can teach my little kids without help from my neighbour." A house wife declared, "My husband will not claim that I am illiterate anymore."
Minute after minute, the classroom filled with tears, sadness and happiness mingled. A woman shouted, "My life was meaningless before this day, and I lived without dignity!''
Amid the overlapping voices, a teenager sitting in the corner stole my attention. She never talked, but looked at me with innocent eyes and a face like the shy moon. It seemed to me she was hiding a deep secret she wanted to get out.
At the end of the day I had a notebook full of impassioned stories, but I felt there was one I was missing. The teenager had watched us all day, but our attempts to talk with her were for naught.
After we thanked all the women for their cooperation and the students started to leave the classroom, this teenager lingered. It turns out her name is Awatif. She first heard of the literacy centers in 2010 and wanted to attend, but knew that her brother would refuse. A year went by, and one day, during Eid (the holiday that marks the end of Ramadan), her brother found her crying in the kitchen.
She told him that she had received many text messages from her friends and sisters for the holiday, but that she couldn’t read them. When she asked her sister-in-law for help, the woman had insulted her and taunted her as illiterate. Finally, her brother agreed to let her attend literacy classes.
And after her six months of classes, Awatif told me that she will send 100 text messages to her friends and sisters next Eid.