Without any obvious plan from the government to deal with digital literacy, the majority of Iraqi women lag behind the world when it comes to technological developments. Many women do not have the skills to use a computer due to digital illiteracy.
With this short phrase, Zainab summarises her digital literacy level. She spends most of her time managing the house and family. She is now 49 years old, a working wife and mother, with no digital skills. She relies on pen and paper, completely isolated from the digital development of the outside world.
Zainab talked about her studies at the Najaf Administrative Institute and how she did not get an opportunity to learn how to use the computer. At the time, the educational staff were not familiar with digital skills and computers were not available for all students in the classroom. Students were also unaware of the importance of computer literacy for their lives and professional future. In these circumstances, Zainab finished her studies at the Institute and her relationship with the computer didn’t exceed glances from afar. Thus, she belongs to the category of digital illiterates according to the UNESCO definition of digital illiteracy.
UNESCO defines digital illiteracy as the inability to access, manage, understand, integrate, communicate, evaluate and create information securely and appropriately through the use of digital technology and techniques.
The analytical youth survey data was provided by the Iraqi Ministry of Planning and the Central Statistical Organisation. The data included youth’s knowledge of using computers in Iraq, according to the Iraqi provinces, urban and rural areas, and gender in 2019-2020. Iraqi women’s digital skills and their impact on education, age and wealth data was provided by the World Bank and multiple indicator cluster surveys by the Iraqi Ministry of Planning.
Iraqi Women are Digitally Illiterate
Data from the Ministry of Planning and the Central Statistical Organisation show that two out of every eight women in their 20s are illiterate and “cannot read and write”, compared to three out of every eight women in their 40s. But what about digital illiteracy, which is one of the most important skills of this era?
To answer this question, the World Bank’s data about female digital literacy in Iraq was analysed. It was found that 96 out of every 100 women in Iraq are digitally illiterate and do not know how to use computers, printers, cameras, and smart devices.
Compared to its neighbours, Iraq’s rates of digital illiteracy are the highest. For every one out of 100 women in Iraq who can code, there are 11 in Bahrain, five in Qatar, six in the UAE, 12 in Saudi Arabia, and 14 in Kuwait (which has the highest percentage of software developers).
Our analysis also showed that zero out of every 330 girls in primary school can create a presentation using a computer program versus one girl in middle school and 25 girls in high school in Iraq. These numbers reflect the reality on the ground that computer education in Iraqi schools starts from the middle school stage and varies from school to school.
To find out the computer skill level among Iraqi youth, the researchers analysed the data of the survey conducted by the Central Statistical Organization in 2020 on digital literacy among youth in all Iraqi governorates.
It was found that out of every 32 young men and women, there are six who know how to use a computer in Erbil, and five in each of Sulaymaniyah and Dohuk, compared to only one in each of Nineveh and Kirkuk governorates, which have the lowest number among the governorates.
Undoubtedly, owning a personal computer increases the digital skill level among men and women. This prompted the research to explore the number of digital devices among Iraqi youth.
For every one out of 10 young men and women in rural areas who own a computer, there are two in the urban areas. The smartphone ownership rate was much higher. For every nine out of 10 young men and women in urban areas who own a smartphone, there are eight in the rural areas.
However, when comparing the percentages of young men and women owning computers with the percentages of their knowledge in using computers in rural and urban areas, it was found that only 3 out of every 25 young men and women in urban areas have computer knowledge compared to only 1 in rural areas.
The Impact of Education, Age, and Wealth on Digital Illiteracy
“I don’t want to be digitally illiterate. If there is a training that can help me learn digital skills, I will be the first to participate.” This is the hope shared by Wejdan and other digitally illiterate women interviewed. “The computer subject was not among the subjects we learned at the university,” says Wejdan, a 60-year-old retired social researcher. She adds with a tone of sadness, “unfortunately the computer and the internet did not exist during my study years in 1983.”
Like thousands of Iraqi women, Wejdan is digitally illiterate in light of the wars and conflicts in the 90s. According to the statements of the media spokesperson in the Ministry of Education, Haider Al-Farouq, the wars exhausted Iraq’s educational structure and its repercussions continue to this day.
Zero girls in primary school have programming skills, while only one in the middle school and 13 in the preparatory stage out of every 330 girls can create computer programs. This indicates that the more that women advance in education, the greater the opportunity for them to learn digital skills such as programming and more.
In addition to this, when comparing the impact of education on women’s skills in terms of how a computer program works using a programming language and the ability to make a presentation, it was found that zero out of every 330 girls in primary school can create a presentation using a software program, compared to 1 in middle school and 25 in high school in Iraq.
The above data shows the impact of wealth and economic factors on women’s ability to work or write a computer program using any programming language. Out of every 330 girls, there is only one in the poor class and only two in the middle class who know how to work a computer program using a programming language, while there are 16 women in the wealthy class. In other words, the higher the standard of living of the individual, the greater the chance of acquiring digital skills. For example, when an individual becomes financially stable, they can buy a computer, internet, or even participate in paid training to acquire digital skills.
Ages of women were also analysed when it comes to their ability to make a presentation using presentation programs. Only one out of every 100 Iraqi women under 20 years of age know how to make a computer program using a programming language, compared to two in their twenties and one in their thirties and forties.
The Assistant Director General for Administrative Affairs at the General Directorate of Educational Planning, Mona Khudair, believes that the reason behind the high rates of illiteracy among women in Iraq are due to social customs and traditions, especially in the rural areas, where girls’ education is limited to reading and writing. This is in addition to the deterioration of the security situation in Iraq, leading to displacement and education being delayed or stopped, and economic challenges related to low standards of living whereby priority for studying is given to men, not women.
Khudair also mentioned that not all schools in Iraq are prepared for digital education, and that the number of computers available in school do not correlate with the number of students. She said that the digital education project is part of the Ministry of Education, and there are no plans to adopt digital skills education for kindergarten or primary school.
Digital Literacy: Yet to See the Light
An expert on women and technology issues, Hawra Milani, a PhD student in Cybersecurity at the University College of London, believes that:
“When a woman has the necessary digital skills, this means that she has the ability to communicate her voice and opinion, and that voice or opinion is heard by the world.”Hawra Milani
‘’When I imagine my life without the digital skills and technological means that are currently available, it would be really difficult. I will then be a restricted woman who does not have any voice or opinion to express or represent me. Deprived of my independence and the ability to make any progress or success in life, I would feel completely isolated from the world and rotate around myself in the same place without taking any step forward.”
Milani stressed that eliminating the problem of digital illiteracy among Iraqi women is possible. She cited the UK’s approach as an example for providing trainings and special grants for women only, taking into account people who do not have a job and do not have a monthly income. These initiatives support married women and mothers by ensuring that the timings of trainings coincide with their availability.
Milani also mentioned the solutions used in Arab countries, such as the UAE. After alphabetic illiteracy almost disappeared in the Emirates, the country turned to digital literacy. The UAE has developed a plan in cooperation with the private sector, which includes women, children and persons with disabilities. The UAE also launched the “One Million Arab Coders” initiative to advance Arab societies and provide Arab youth with basic programming skills through online training courses.
These solutions apply to Iraq as well, according to Milani, as the country can collaborate with the private sector to provide technical support and train women in digital skills. Many large companies wish to invest in Iraq. The Iraqi government can also offer women incentives to improve their digital skills by providing free devices, such as a computer.
Milani stressed that there are many solutions that can be implemented in Iraq to eradicate digital illiteracy, and they will certainly be expensive, but these costs should be seen as an investment. When women obtain the digital skills that can provide them with a work-from-home opportunity, they will contribute to economic growth, reduce the unemployment rate, and raise the percentage of women working in the Iraqi tech sector. However, these solutions and programs depend not only on the will of the government, but also on the will of women for change, as society must be aware of the need to possess digital skills at this time.
Milani also explained that if the country wants to help the women of Iraq, it needs only three things: a computer, internet, and training, and then the world is her oyster.
On the 8th of September 2021, International Literacy Day, the Iraqi Ministry of Education announced plans to tackle illiteracy and open 1,000 literacy centres under the illiteracy law, which is yet to be applied. While the Ministry did not announce any current or future plans regarding digital illiteracy, the government must first deal with educational illiteracy, and then move on to finding solutions for digital illiteracy, as both are inextricably linked.