The Lost Girls

Collateral damage in the war in Iraq? Young women.

In a low-rise house in Baghdad, three young women sit around a TV, sipping fruit juice and celebrating their freedom from virtual house arrest. For the past five years, the friends have been homebound, as their parents were afraid the girls would be kidnapped, raped, or killed on the conflict-ridden streets. The good news: Baghdad is safer now, and the girls are free to roam. The bad: These young women - and an estimated 1.5 million others like them - have missed so many years of school, they're unlikely to go back.

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"It's impossible to describe how boring it was," says Una, 21, of her parentally enforced imprisonment. "My parents were so scared I'd get hurt that they locked all the doors and hid the keys from me." Her 18-year-old friend Safia says, "I went weeks and months without seeing someone my own age."

During the most chaotic period, boys were also yanked out of school, but as the atmosphere gradually improved, they returned. Not so the girls, whose parents continued to worry about dangers facing their daughters, such as being accosted for not wearing properly pious clothing.

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So what does the future hold for these young women? Marriage, or low-paid work such as cleaning or sewing. Ironically, many will be less independent than their mothers - teachers, engineers, and doctors who had used education as a ticket out of household drudgery and religious conservatism.

"A whole generation may be lost," says Zainab Salbi, founder of the nonprofit Women for Women International. Still, she adds, "It's not too late to get some girls back into the education system." To that end, Women for Women is providing homeschooling; to get involved, visit womenforwomen.org.

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