Empowering Iraq’s abandoned war widows
Baghdad - Ahlam Sahar lost her husband four years ago in the sectarian violence that has plagued Iraq since the US invasion in 2003. She is among nearly 1 million Iraqi widows, with few resources to feed and raise young children. She had little idea of what to do next.
After her husband was killed in 2012 in an explosion in a Baghdad market where he worked, Sahar’s life was in total disarray. “The loss was devastating for me and my four children. I have no skills to be able to find a job and had to depend on the charity of people,” she said.
With the help of her daughter’s teacher, the 38-year-old woman got in contact with the Hope Association, a local non-governmental organisation (NGO) that assists widows in setting up small businesses by securing microcredit from charities and international humanitarian organisations.
“The idea was that I allocate a space in my house to sell baby clothes and housewares provided by the association. They had me sit for training in marketing and the administration of small businesses. After a while, I was able to meet the needs of my children… I never imagined that I could do that,” Sahar said.
Meiad Moayed turned to her sewing skills after she was left alone to provide for five small children when her husband was killed in a suicide attack in Baghdad. With no real education to be able to find employment, Moayed sought, unsuccessfully, to get government assistance. She then found a local social welfare organisation that donated a sewing machine and basic materials that allowed her to start a small business.
“I could excel in sewing, which I mastered well. Business flourished with time and I was able to expand my work to selling cosmetics and women’s wear in addition to making dresses to my growing clientele,” Moayed, 35, said.
Decades of conflicts followed by years of sectarian slaughter in the post-Saddam era, resulted in nearly 3 million widows, the equivalent of one-quarter of Iraq’s female population, according to the Ministry of Social Affairs. Almost 1 million lost their husbands between 2003-13. The count does not include those who were widowed by Islamic State (ISIS) violence, since the terror group seized parts of northern Iraq a year and a half ago.
According to the United Nations, at the height of Iraq’s sectarian war in 2006, as many as 100 women were widowed each day. Many live in horrible conditions; an estimated 25% do not have daily access to water and others live on the streets or in public parks with their children. About 40% can’t afford to send their children to school.
The Hope Association is one of the few resources available to Iraqi widows. Since its inception before 2003, the group has worked on empowering widowed women with few resources and little education.
“We have an army of widows who are largely neglected by the government. It is an alarming situation and the Iraqi government must take responsibility and react urgently to provide monthly compensation for them, especially under the existing security and economic conditions,” Hope Association President Hana Adroud said.
Microcredit programmes by NGOs such as Adroud’s are not sufficient to address the issue of widowhood in Iraq, Adroud says. “Ensuring funds for a simple project entails the support of foreign humanitarian associations,” she said. “But the assistance provided does not cover the large numbers of cases registered with us.
“For instance, we have recently secured loans for five widows with the support of a Swedish humanitarian group which offered a small amount that did not exceed $10,000.”
As the number of widows increased, the nominal amount of government aid available has been stretched thin. Only one-sixth of Iraqi widows receive federal aid, amounting to $34-$81 a month. To receive the benefits, a widow must be well-connected, and even then, the small amount does not come close to covering a family’s needs.
Ammar Monem, an official at the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, pointed out that the ministry has given more than 10,000 interest-free, 8-year loans with a 1-year grace period to fund small businesses under the government’s strategy to reduce poverty.
“Widows and divorcees heading their households, in addition to the poor who are suffering from handicaps and the beggars benefited from these loans,” Monem said, noting that the allocated funds totalled $388 million over the past three years.
Nonetheless, needs are huge and remedies insufficient, said Adroud.
“The government has huge means that it should invest properly in the service of the Iraqi people, especially in empowering widowed women who are shouldering much bigger responsibilities due to the current situation. This is instrumental for the country’s recovery,” she added.