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Leaders for Education Series - Zainab Salbi

©Women for Women International
Zainab Salbi is co-founder and CEO of Women for Women International, a grassroots international humanitarian and development organization helping women survivors of war rebuild their lives, families and communities. A survivor of war herself, Ms. Salbi grew up in Iraq, and was sent to America for an arranged but ultimately abusive marriage. Stranded in America by the Gulf War, she escaped the marriage and started her life over. She co-founded the organization in 1993, at the age of 23, as a response to the trauma endured by women survivors of the Balkan wars. Here she talks to us about her life, work and girls' education and gender equality.

A survivor of the war in Iraq, an activist and social entrepreneur who joined the global movement to help women survivors of war and civil strife cope with the aftermath of conflict, what does education mean to you?

In simple terms, education means teaching boys and girls alike basic reading, writing, and mathematical skills. In reality, however, the issue of education is a complex one involving not only the students, but also implicating the larger social sphere of their families and communities, local and national governments, international institutions, and cultural traditions. In Afghanistan, the literacy statistics for boys and girls is jarring – 51% of Afghan boys can read and write, but only 18% of the girls are literate. In poverty- and conflict-stricken societies, the rate of school attendance among children is disturbingly low, but among these societies, girls are the least likely to be sent to schools. Poor families often don’t see the value in educating a girl if she’s going to be married off to another family and take care of the home. Other social norms indirectly inhibit schooling among girls, for example, early or forced marriages, puberty initiation rites, and purdah. In the Amhara region of Ethiopia, nearly 1 in 3 girls not in school said that the primary reason was marriage. Such practices not only restrict girls’ education, but children forced into early marriages are subjected to a higher risk of sexual abuse, illness and death. When children are allowed to go to schools, they struggle with fear of potential violence and sexual abuse by militants or rebels. One half of the sexual assaults worldwide is on girls 15 years or younger. To enable education, we need to ensure a safe and conducive environment for learning where children are not constantly stricken with fear or face opposing cultural barriers. Education represents a common thread connecting children and parents in the developed and developing worlds - why not incorporate it as part of the solution to peace and security?

What elements in your education inspired you and helped forge your career?

You have developed a theory of change based on building local leadership and capacity at the grassroots level and one of the mottos of your organization is “stronger women build stronger nations.” Please explain how investing in women’s education creates lasting social and political change?

Study after study has shown the ripple effects of educating girls. The future social and economic development of local communities and nations as a whole depends heavily on the education rights of girls. When girls are educated, they have better economic opportunities and better-paying jobs, and the increased income they receive is most often re-invested into their community again. Studies from the World Bank have shown that even 1 year of primary schooling can bump a girl’s income up 10 to 20 percent later in life. One extra year of secondary schooling can increase a girl’s lifetime wages by 15 to 25 percent. Beyond that, every 1 percent increase in women’s education generates a 0.3 percent increase in economic growth. Additionally, the economic benefits of equal education to women and girls extend beyond individual wages to lower childbearing rates, which translate to smaller family sizes and less dependents per family, and more sustainable population growth in the long run.

Furthermore, the educational attainment and health of future generations are dependent on the state of women’s education today. Educated mothers give birth to infants with lower mortality rates – for every year of schooling, infant mortality drops by 5 to 10 percent. A study of 17 developing countries found that higher level of schooling among mothers was related to better infant health. Mothers with schooling also had more resources to send their kids to school, better able to help their children with schoolwork, and more importantly, they serve as primary role models for their children. Given what we have seen in data and in my own real-life experiences working for 17 years with women survivors of war, improving the education rights of women and girls is fully aligned with international goals for human rights and development. 

You grew up at a time when both girls and boys had equal access to quality education in Iraq. How to you feel that more than two decades on, this gender parity has taken a nose-dive?  What  kind of impact do you think this will have on girls’ education in the long term in Iraq with a history of conflict?

One half of out-of-school children are living in conflict-affected and fragile states. We are already seeing the effects of this and of the gendered divisions of education levels today in Iraq. Few of the women of my mother’s generation--a generation of educated women who have worked in all different sectors of the country--are still holding on.  Many professional women who were doctors, professors and journalists were assassinated in the past 7 years.  Those who have survived the killings and the temptation to leave the country in search of a safer place to live have either retreated within the home or taken advantage of quotas that have opened opportunities for women to become members of the Iraqi parliament. 

Today in Iraq, women have no one unified reality.  At the same time as many women increase participation in the political sector—Iraq’s Parliament and local councils are required to have 25% women representation—thousands more are experiencing brutal hardship and extreme poverty.  There are now more destitute women in Iraq than ever before—estimates of the number of war widows range from one to three million.  These and other socially and economically marginalized women are vulnerable and at high risk of trafficking, organized and forced prostitution, polygamy, domestic violence, and being recruited as suicide bombers, something that the society is still trying to process and understand.  In a single day’s journey around Baghdad, one can see all these many and conflicting realities of Iraqi women. 

Is there anything else about education and your work that you would like to add?

There has been a developing and dangerous trend where girls tend to drop out of school at or close to puberty. These girls face strenuous social barriers to transition from primary to secondary school because of pressure from families to get married. A quarter of girls 10 to 14 years old in developing countries do not go to school in 2000, and the highest number of adolescent girls out of school is in Western and Central Africa. We have seen the benefits of secondary schooling for girls and society, and donor and technical agencies should re-focus their attention on supporting secondary schooling. New efforts should also go into training gender-sensitive teachers and increasing the number of female teachers.

The centrality of education to the empowerment of women is a foundation of the work we do every day at Women for Women International. We help women learn job and vocational skills, business and leadership training, and about their unique rights. We have seen what a year of education can do to these women survivors of war. More than two-thirds of the women we worked with reported improvements in their income level and more than three-quarters of them reported an increase in knowledge and awareness about their rights. This has led to active involvement in their local communities, by starting their own businesses, empowering and inspiring other women to move beyond survivor to become active citizens, and re-investing their fruits of labor back into their own community. Only when the international community understands the fact that education is a right of every human being, that it represents the common element connecting every individual in all parts of the world, and that it is worth the fight, can we say that we have achieved our goal of ensuring equal opportunity and access to education for all. 

Click here for Zainab Salbi's biography.

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