Building Stronger Education for Kurdistan’s Social Workers

Social workers help communities heal – fighting for social justice and providing a safe space to be heard, when no one else will listen. Yet, the number of qualified social workers in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) is few.

Ongoing conflict and violence have presented a variety of social challenges in Kurdistan, isolating individuals, and breaking apart families, and communities. Gender-based violence (GBV), poor mental and physical health, trauma and a lack of economic opportunity, have resulted in large swathes of society in Kurdistan resorting to unhealthy coping mechanisms – which can manifest as further violence, exploitation and worse, trafficking. Despite the high needs, social work is a very new profession in Kurdistan, with the first university degree program established in 2007 at Salahaddin University in Erbil. This is one of the only formal programs in the country.

But, there is great potential and it starts with equipping social work students: the future social workers of Kurdistan.
In 2021, SEED Foundation, with the support of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH and on behalf of the German Government, started working with Salahaddin University to strengthen the existing curriculum so that graduates can be better equipped with the skills they need to serve their communities, and to ensure students have suitable practicum experiences.

To start, SEED Foundation conducted an assessment, including surveys, interviews, and focus group discussions with students, alumni, faculty, and employers, to better understand priority needs. During the assessment presentation, Tanya Gilly Khailany, SEED Foundation Vice President highlighted that this is just the first step to help identify areas where SEED and Salahaddin University could collaborate to equip undergraduate students with the knowledge and skills to support vulnerable people, including survivors of GBV and those at risk.

While students and faculty alike reported mutual enthusiasm and passion for the study of social work, the assessment pointed to key gaps in the available resources and access to real-life experience. In response, SEED and Salahaddin University will develop additional content on practical social work skills and will add more modules on gender with an emphasis on gender-based violence.

To make sure graduates are ready to start working upon graduation, SEED and Salahaddin University are also collaborating to ensure that students have access to high-quality practicum opportunities, with clear guidance and strengthened supervision mechanisms.

Salahaddin University President, Professor Jawhar Fattah Saeed was thankful to SEED for conducting the assessment and stated that the university recognizes the crucial need to focus on GBV in the community and that investing in research on such a topic is equally important to better prepare social workers to address this phenomena in society.

But even with improved skills, social workers face the issue of stigma. The stigma associated with seeking help – uncertainty as to where to find assistance, whether they can afford it, and skepticism about whether professionals have the skills and guaranteed anonymity they seek – scares people away even when in critical need. That’s why SEED will work with the University to raise awareness of social work as a profession among broader society, aiming to give this work greater recognition and legitimacy, ensuring social workers have access to the resources they need and encouraging those who need help, to seek it.