Karim Kadim/AP
Nawal al-Samarraie

Who Will Fight for Iraq's War Widows?

March 11, 2009 01:48 PM
by Shannon Firth
The Iraqi women’s minister resigned in February due to lack of governmental support; she now hopes to renew her advocacy of Iraq’s most neglected demographic—its widows.

"Forgotten Women"

Iraqi women’s minister Nawal al-Samarraie resigned in February due to lack of support from her fellow countrymen. On March 9, after international organizations promised financial support, she rescinded her resignation, saying, “The reason for my resignation was the lack of funds and human resources, but with the new situation, I think I can work.”

According to The New York Times, which cited a United Nations report, between 90 and 100 women lost their husbands each day in Iraq when sectarian violence peaked in 2006. The Times noted there are about 740,000 widows in Iraq, but only one in six receives any government aid.

Although traditionally extended families and even neighbors take in and care for widows, the onset of the Iraqi war caused such practices and government services to diminish. These days a widow’s choices range from begging, to prostitution, to “temporary marriages,” which are little different from prostitution. Other widows join the insurgency for pay, some as suicide bombers.

In Afghanistan there are 1.5 million war widows, born from 30 years of fighting, according to the Indian magazine Frontline. Similar to Iraq, career options include tailoring, begging, carpet making or prostitution. Independent writer Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy says that without an education women have few options, adding, “If America invaded us to liberate our women, this is a clear sign that they are failing miserably.”

Frontline reports that a woman named “Gul” lost her husband in 2001 when an American bomb hit her house. She is a beggar in Kabul, Afghanistan, the “the widows capital of the world.” On a good day, she says she makes enough to buy two pieces of bread. Women are angry with the U.S. government, but equally frustrated with their own. Sixteen-year-old Seema, whose father was killed, says, “The government doesn’t care about us. They do not offer to help us; nothing has changed for us in this new Afghanistan.”

What do government leaders suggest? In Iraq, Mazin al-Shihan, director of the Baghdad Displacement Committee, thinks the government should pay men to marry women. Al-Shihan explains to The New York Times, “If we give the money to the widows, they will spend it unwisely … But if we find her a husband, there will be a person in charge of her and her children for the rest of their lives.”

On Sunday, March 8, International Women’s Day, Oxfam released a survey of 1,700 women in five provinces of Iraq. The report was produced in conjunction with the Al-Amal Association, and showed that 35.5 percent of survey respondents now act as the head of their household. 

In addition, 40 percent of respondents said their children aren’t going to school and 25 percent of those surveyed do no have accessible drinking water. Jeremy Hobbs, the executive director put these statistics in context: “Mothers are being forced to make tough choices, such as whether to pay for their children to go to school and receive health care, or to pay for private power and water services.”

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Related Topic: Mental health and Iraq’s wartime resilience

The Associated Press addressed a separate study from the World Health Organization and the Iraqi government, which described Iraqis as “mentally resilient amid war,” given that 30 percent have witnessed shootings or bombings and another 10 percent have either been abducted or jailed or had a family member who was. The study showed “a surprisingly low rate of severe mental disorders such as PTSD.” However, the study reported women were more likely than men to have severe depression and experience phobias such as a fear of going out of the house.

It’s important to recognize however that there’s a significant stigma attached to mental disorders, and as Ronald Kessler, a health care policy professor at Harvard Medical School noted, “Among those who have mental illnesses in Iraq, they’re pretty serious.’

Opinion & Analysis: Government responsibility

On her blog, The Muslim Woman, Dayasurabhi Balaji writes that in countries like Iraq the treatment of women and incidents like honor killings persist because the government has not learned to address them. Iraq’s constitution accepts Shariah. She explains: “[When] the country itself [is] ravaged by wars and suffering from many social evils … these countries never know what peace is, because of which they fear change and stick to old laws trying to implement it.”

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