“Women contributes tenderness, love, conservation of life, values, patience,.....Thank God for making me a woman, but how hard is to be so here in Iraq” Johanna L. Rivera/ Jose L. RedondoWe returned back to Khabat, for our second day in the survey. Khabat is just 30 minutes from Erbil, well, with our driver, surely less. Erbil is the capital of the Autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan Region. On one hand; the poor infrastructure of Khabat and on the other, massive development and investment being poured into Erbil, construction of villas, malls, cinemas and billboards that read “Democracy cannot be achieved without justice”. There is construction and dust EVERYWHERE, whereas in Khabat, there is no sewage system. You can see the sewage water running on many streets as the kids run and play around.
We met Kak Faisal[Kak is a polite way to address a person here in Kurdistan] and the took us to our first home. As we explained the survey and the benefits from participating on it to the woman, she was very receptive. She started answering to our questions and then 2 men one of them her brother, entered the room. My colleague explained to him the purpose of our visit and how we were seeking to identify women to participate in the survey and eventually in the courses. He was opposed to her sister participating in any kind of course let alone working outside the house. He said that “Our tradition does not allow women to work outside the house”, besides he pointed out that his sister was old (she was in her forties) and she would not be able to learn anything in such a short time (a 3 month-course). I didn’t notice when exactly the woman left the room, but we could not complete our survey and left the house politely thanking the brother (FOR NOTHING!!!)
The houses we visited seemed to be constructed recently. You could tell because most of them were on bare concrete blocks, no decoration. The infrastructure around this village is very scarce. You can see the sewage running on channels on the street, there is a lot of garbage around. Kids playing and running on the streets, along the sewage.
We went to a second house, where we interviewed a woman, she was 23. She was married at the age of 13 and divorced at age 19. Her children were not with her, as she doesn’t have any means of supporting herself or providing for them. This situation (the early marriage), which could seem unacceptable for us, is a common practice in this traditional society. Marrying at this early age, leaves women no choice but to leave school, often without reading and writing skills, to attend her wife’s duties and leaving her depending only on her husband. When he leaves or dies, she is left with her children and no source of income, sending her and her children into deep poverty.
The estimated number of widows and divorcees reached 2 million out of a total population of 30 million. Many of these widows’ loss stem from wars of the past decades, including the Iran-Iraq War, the First Gulf War, and the American invasion with its resulting sectarian violence. The Iraqi government has not been providing sufficient financial assistance to this vulnerable group and women are often in need of humanitarian aid. On a recent study by Oxfam, 76% of widows said they did not receive a pension from the government. 40% of women with children reported that their sons and daughters were not attending school. Another study by the World Food Program found that 12.4% of households in Erbil were headed by women.
Largely widowed and almost entirely all without any employment, the female-headed households live in constant threat of eviction with few if any alternatives, making them especially vulnerable to exploitation and violence as they search for other means to find food and shelter. IOM research in 2008 identified victims of trafficking in northern and central Iraq with profiles of the victims revealing that more than half of female victims were orphans or from single parent families. Another IOM survey of 1,355 female-headed displaced families who have returned to their places of origin found that 74 percent are struggling to secure adequate nutrition for their families.
|Kitchen of one of the families we visited for the survey in Khabat. Photo by Johanna L. Rivera|
In addition to this, one in five women (21%) in Iraq aged 15-49 has suffered physical violence at the hands of the husband. 14% of women who suffered physical violence were pregnant at the time. 33% have suffered emotional violence, and 83% have been subjected to controlling behavior by the husbands.
Iraqi women and girls are not fully aware of their rights. 59% of women aged 15-49 believe that it is acceptable for a man to beat his wife under certain circumstances. This figure is higher in rural areas (70%) and among women with no formal education (71%). Women aged between 15 and 24 are as likely to tolerate abuse as older generations.
In a recent survey by Oxfam titled In He Own Words, Iraqi women talk about their greatest concerns and challenges, 1,700 women were interviewed and talked about their stories. Here I leave you with one of the stories that really made me take a deep breath:
“My son Amer graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering and was planning to get married…. On 5 November 2007, three days before his wedding, he and my daughter Basimah, along with a friend, went out to buy the wedding dress and other wedding accessories in the Al Karradah neighbourhood market in Baghdad. Two hours later, someone called us from Basimah’s mobile phone to tell us that they had been admitted to the hospital as a result of an explosion…. When I arrived, I started searching among the injured patients, running from one ward to another going crazy. Then they took me to the mortuary and there I found them. I wept silently for such a long time and so all the other women around me began weeping too....So, I leave you ---------with something to think about as I keep on my journey deep into the Iraqi women’s struggle.
I wished I were dead when I saw their bodies in the morgue piled on top of each other. I can't forget the scene of them even for one moment.... I wish I could see them again. They were the fruit of my life and the only hope I had in this world. …. We have received no pension money to live on…there are so many cases of widows and others [who have lost loved ones and breadwinners] who are also not receiving anything from the government, no compensation or pension."
-- Emman’s elderly husband is ill with cancer and can no longer work. Emman said that she and her husband always struggled economically, but had enough to ensure their children attended university so they could improve the family’s situation. Her daughter Basimah had a good job as a computer programmer but had resigned due to rampant insecurity shortly before she was killed.
All of us, men and women, soldiers and peacekeepers, citizens and leaders—have a responsibility to help end violence against women, UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon