Iraq: Widows Organization harnessing women's economic contributions
I.M.O.W. Global Council member Rajaa Khuzai argues that the hundreds of thousands of widows in Iraq must no longer be ignored, and that their economic contributions must be harnessed to help the war-torn country recover. Dr. Khuzai is a physician and former member of the Iraqi National Assembly. She is currently the President of the Iraqi Widows' Organization, a role which earned her a Nobel Peace Prize nomination in 2004.
More than three million Iraqi men have been killed in the Iraq War since 2003, leaving behind nearly 740,000 widows and an inestimable number of children. When suddenly left without a husband, newly widowed women have few resources and very little idea of what to do next. The same social customs that kept many of them from being educated as young women now prevent them from working as adults, despite the fact that many are in acute economic need. Begging widows have become commonplace in Iraqi cities. Government aid has all but run out and few options for alternative forms of assistance from NGOs or local organizations exist.
In my career as an ob-gyn, I cared for women every day. My patients trusted me and told me not only their medical problems, but also their social woes. Through my patients, it became clear that the number of widows in Iraq was growing quickly, and that those widows were suffering socially and economically. I wanted to find a way to help these young widows take part in the community as fully-functioning and respected citizens--not as a marginal group. In 2004, I worked with the World Bank to create the Iraqi Widows' Organization (IWO).
IWO helps widowed women form a cohesive voice, raises their profile in Iraq, provides aid to needy women wherever possible, and assists them in becoming economically independent.
According to the United Nations, at the height of the Iraq War as many as 100 women were widowed each day. It is estimated that one Iraqi woman in 11 is a widow. Many live in horrible conditions; an estimated 25 percent don't have daily access to water, and others live on the streets or in public parks with their children. About 40 percent can't afford to send their children to school.
As the number of widows has increased, the already nominal amount of government aid available has been stretched thin. Only one-sixth of Iraqi widows receive federal aid, amounting to between $34 and $81 a month. In order to receive such benefits a widow must be well-connected or enter into a "temporary marriage" based on sex with one of the bureaucrats who distribute the funds. Even then, this paltry amount does not come close to covering a family's needs, so many widows are forced to work as servants, beg, or ask their families for help. Some have become prostitutes, while others have joined the insurgency in exchange for money.
The Iraqi Widows' Organization is one of the few resources available to Iraqi widows. Since our inception in 2004, we have begun a micro-credit program to provide loans, created literacy classes, and organized conferences where widows can come together and think of solutions to their common problems. Since many widows have little to no formal education and no marketable job skills, we've begun training programs for computer science, sewing and marketing. We also encourage women to get involved in the political process by holding education sessions about local elections and the Iraqi constitution. In the last election, we trained 42 women to participate in election monitoring at their local polls.
IWO also distributes humanitarian aid to widows and orphans, and teaches about human rights and domestic violence so that widows will know their rights. We have held health symposia to educate women about protecting their families from infectious diseases, and we've worked with other local groups, such as the Iraqi Centre for Civil Society Organizations, to hold workshops about how to write proposals for community programs or grants.
As a result, the widows we work with at IWO have gained self-confidence, have gained an education, and have been given a voice. Through microloans, they became businesswomen, and many now can support themselves and their children. Because the number of widows is so high, teaching them the skills they need to be heads of households and helping them start small businesses will help Iraqi communities recover more quickly than if they were marginalized and vulnerable or living on somebody else's aid.
On Aug. 19, 2008--known as "Bloody Wednesday"--a terrorist bombing killed at least 110 people and injured more than 1300, many of them seriously. That single day raised the number of widows sharply. The terrible destruction made me realize that widowhood in Iraq must be taken seriously, and needs to be addressed on a national level. I realized that our single organization is not enough; the Iraqi government must take responsibility and react urgently. Widowhood needs more international attention as well: if the global community wants the future of Iraq to be a stable, healthy, peaceful one, than widowhood must be addressed and managed in a proper way to support widows in becoming independent.
No amount of education or assistance can fully heal the damages these women have suffered through losing their husbands and being marginalized in their own society. IWO is empowering and educating widows, so that they will gain confidence and be able to support themselves and their families economically. Then they too will contribute to repairing Iraq. Iraqi widows cannot be left as silent victims of war; they must be afforded a strong, collective voice, and when they are, they will become instrumental to our country's recovery.