Interview: How Women for Women International Is Helping Women in Iraq

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The war is over and U.S. troops have left. But after ten years of violence and upheaval, how are women faring in Iraq? Last week I had the privilege of speaking with Karen Sherman, director of global programs at the humanitarian organization, Women for Women International, who told me an astonishing statistic: There are more than 1 million war widows in Iraq. In a wide-ranging interview, Sherman spoke about what women are going through, their everyday struggles and concerns, and an innovative project the group has launched to help Iraq's widows develop leadership skills and receive job training.

Mona: Living in a country torn by war for more than a decade, and religious animosity between Sunnis and Shiites, what are the biggest challenges facing women in Iraq? Is it economic, lack of education and job training so that women are dependent on their male relatives to support them?

Karen: I think there are a number of competing problems, some of which are short-term. What’s uppermost is their personal safety, as the sectarian tensions seem to increase, particularly with the U. S. troop withdrawal. They’re also worried the government is not going to be there to protect their rights.

Mona: In what way?

Karen: I think right now it’s playing out in terms of heightened insecurity and fear about the future, restricted freedom of movement, the ability to go to work and seek work, and the ability to seek an education and move around freely. They’re concerned in the future this will not be available to them because of religious forces and what’s going to happen in the government.

What we see in multiple countries when there is instability is women’s rights negotiated away. You’re seeing that in Afghanistan and in Iraq, too. But what they’re very concerned about is the whittling away of their basic rights.

Mona: I was going to ask you what it means for women now that the war is over, and American troops have left, how has that improved women’s lives? How has it made the situation in the country for them worse?

Karen: I don’t know that it’s had an impact on their rights, but there have been a lot of explosions lately so women don’t feel they can freely walk around. They can’t go do their work in the marketplace. Even women who are doing somewhat well, they’re being targeted physically in terms of damage to themselves and their families.

Mona: What are WfWI staff workers seeing on the ground?

Karen: The explosions are targeting breadwinners. The areas are not well secured, particularly after the troop withdrawal.

The women we’re working with want to be hopeful. They have dreams of going back to school and being able to provide for their families. When they’re not able to move about freely, those things are very difficult to move forward with.

Mona: What population of women are you working with?

Karen We’re working with the least educated. About half the women in our program have attended primary school, and only 24 percent have attended secondary school, but it’s better than a lot of other countries, like Afghanistan. I think it’s partly due to the war. There’s been an increase in religious conservatism in Iraq. That has an impact on people sending their girl children to school.

Mona: How many women were widowed during the war in Iraq? What does that mean if you’re a widow? Does the government provide any financial support or health care?

Karen: It’s about a million—which is a really high number. Only a few of them receive pensions from the government. It’s only a drop in the bucket. They need to support themselves and their families.

We’re implementing a war widows project in Baghdad and Karbala. Women for Women International historically works with the most socially excluded women. Women who are victims of war and violence often are left as single heads of households. They’re the full providers of their family. So this 12-month program allows them to learn leadership and vocational skills and the training to go out and earn money.

We’re doing some additional work with the widows around access to health care and access to literacy.

Mona: What age are most of the women in your program?

Karen: The average age is about 34. They’re fairly young women. Some are married. Almost 20 percent of the women are widows. It’s mostly related to the war and the aftermath of war.

Mona: How long has Women for Women International been on the ground in Iraq?

Karen: We went in 2003. We have 25 people on staff there. That includes our country office in Baghdad, which is staffed by all local nationals. Our trainers and vocational leaders, all of them are Iraqi.

Mona: What are some of the fundamental changes in women’s equality that have taken place since the war? Were more women being educated and in the workplace when Saddam Hussein was in power?

Karen: There was a period of time under Saddam when women were out in the workplace. They were more normally educated. What you see increasingly is the daughters of these women who had been active in the workforce were illiterate and not able to circulate freely and go out to work. What you hope is that successive generations are going to be more educated and active, and we’re seeing the opposite trend in Iraq. Women had been increasingly marginalized in Iraqi society. Sixty percent of the women in our program are war widows and female heads of household. At the start only 13 percent are able to read and write, and less than one percent have any kind of income.

Mona:How do they get by?

Karen: A lot of them are receiving funds from family members, or they live on very little. Some of them have to beg for money. It’s obviously not enough to not only survive but thrive.

Mona: Tell me stories of individual women who’ve been helped by the program.

Karen: A woman by the name of Hind, her father was killed and her mother injured when a missile hit their home. This wasn’t too long ago. They ended up moving in with her grandmother. They were terrified something else was going to happen. She was very depressed. She felt hopeless, which is how many women feel. She enrolled in our program. She was able to start taking vocational courses in sewing and computers. She eventually decided to do candlemaking. We have a partnership with Prosperity Candles. She’s able to make money now. She’s not only able to help herself, but other women in her community.

Mona:What other businesses have women launched?

Karen: Some of graduates of our program have begun to form cooperatives and associations where they’re beginning to do business together. In Karabala they’re forming cooperatives in date packaging and making products for religious events. The ability to work together is something we really promote.

Other women are not necessarily earning money, but working to improve services in their community; working to get access to electricity, sanitation services, having places for their kids to go to school,

Mona: What other jobs do you train women for?

Karen: All of our programs have vocational skills offerings. What changes is the types of skills and what the marketplace will support. Most of these are not formal places of employment, but things women can do in their homes. A lot of women do beauty care, for example, the threading of eyebrows. A woman might do that in a given community and have women come to her home. Tailoring is another example. We’ve had women in Karbala make sheets and bedding for hospitals,

Mona: What kind of resistance have you encountered from men who don’t want their female relatives working or being involved in a program like this?

Karen: I think there has been resistance, at a family level, even at a community and society level. We work very hard to sensitize family members what women are going to learn, and once they leave the program, the contribution they’ll be able to make. Over time that moves away and women are really able to get the support of the male family members, actually even see them joining business that the women are starting. When women finish our program, they know their rights, they bring resources into the family. It really changes the dynamic in that family. There's less violence and more support for the woman. Her voice is heard and she’s much more of a decision-maker in the family because she’s making a broader contribution.

Mona: What has made the situation for women in Iraq unique?

Karen:I think obviously the level of sectarian violence. I think the U.S. occupation for such a long period of time makes it unique. Also the fact women used to be more educated and are less so now. You don’t see that in a lot of other countries we’ve been. You’re having some generational disconnects because of that.

They have less self-esteem, less freedom of movement, less exposure to the economy and society because they haven’t been able to move about freely because of the war.

That’s what they want. Obviously the demand for our program is greater than we can serve. We're limited by the number of sponsors we have to put through women in this program. If we had more sponsors we could do more for women in Iraq.

Women are a critical part of the peace building process. They need to have a seat at the table. They shouldn't be doing it from their homes. They should be doing it as an integral part of society.

war widows

Credit Image: © Women for Women International/

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