The unity and determination that young Iraqis showed in the 2019 demonstrations, will be crucial as they try to rebuild Iraq after the pandemic and decades of conflict, says Pooja Kapahi.
When young people took to the streets in Iraq, in October 2019, their demands were simple. For five straight days, they poured onto the streets of Baghdad and other major cities demanding an end to chronic unemployment, corruption and poor public services, including access to water and electricity. If young Iraqis are to realise these dreams, despite the massive disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, they are going to need to remember this unity.
These demonstrations, that set of a wave of similar protests across the region, exposed the fragility of the Iraqi socio-economic system. Iraq is a young country – some 60% of its population is under 25 years old so student sit-ins and strikes at government offices brought the country to a standstill. Alaa Wissam, a 25-year-old architect, who joined the protests told a reporter that “this will help young people to have a role in the change that is happening.”
We decided to cut the roads as a message to the government that we will keep protesting until the corrupt people and thieves are kicked out and the regime falls.”
Since October, the movement has swept Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi from office and, following his resignation in December 2019, led to reforms in electoral law. These reforms are aimed at broadening participation in elections by doing away with party lists, and moving towards a system of proportional representation that benefits independent candidates and creates closer ties to constituents. These were great successes but the road ahead for these young Iraqis is a long one.
Critical infrastructure, houses, schools, health facilities, and police stations have been damaged or destroyed by this series of conflicts. There is no way of quantifying the trauma and loss of human life, the violence endured by men, women and children in these years, but the Iraqi government assessed that it would require more than $88 billion to recover and rebuild the economy and infrastructure.
Iraq was already struggling its own battles to rebuild, when coronavirus hit the region and dealt a major blow to the already broken health system. In a country where the majority of the population are displaced and living under tents COVID-19 has worsened conditions.
Now is the time.
In 2019 Iraq saw 462,000 people returning; surpassing the number of people leaving for the third year in a row.
This data suggests Iraqis now feel ready and able to come back and rebuild their country, their homes and their lives. The World Bank Group (WGB) has been supporting the MENA region by working with governments, through various integrated investments, improving access to basic services and building economic opportunities for men and women. Among other initiatives, they have invested $18 million into the dairy industry and a $65million loan to cement company Lafarge to boost the local construction industry. Boosting the labour intensive industries which will in turn help in the demand for local labour.
But rebuilding requires more than money; it requires building community trust, social strength, stability and harmony. Many young Iraqis may had never experienced this sort of cohesion until they took to the streets in mass protests to denounce rampant corruption, poor services, and high unemployment. It is not over yet, but the dysfunction of Iraq may just have united young people across classes and clans. This unity will serve them well as they set about to build a new country.
Pooja is a passionate gender rights activist and works towards amplifying the voices of young women especially those living in urban resettlement colonies in India. She is currently an independent communications consultant working with various international organisations to strengthen digital communications and support in building youth centric development projects.
In recognition of her work to ensure greater acton is taken in India to address issues of gender based violence, harassment and youth movements and for her strong desire to encourage girls and women in India to aspire and achieve professional development she was selected as a Young Leader for Women Deliver (2018). She was selected to speak at the Youth Zone session titled ‘Young Leaders Speak: Harnessing Creativity to Move the Needle for Girls and Women’ during Women Deliver Conference in June 2019 in Canada and as a panelist for 'Increasing awareness around Cervical Cancer and subsidising the cervical cancer vaccine in India' hosted by Jhpiego. She was also selected as one of the Global Goalkeepers by Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2018. Pooja has attended various national and international conferences such as the National Conclave on SDGs 2019 in India, Partners Forum 2018 (PMNCH), Commonwealth Youth Forum in 2018, the Commission on the Status of Women in 2018 (CSW62) and the High Level Political Forum in 2017 as a Youth Advocate.