Iraq’s widows, abandoned and ignored, turn to begging
BAGHDAD - You see them draped in head-to-toe black robes and head covers, begging on street corners or selling anything from vegetables to cigarettes.
They are Iraq’s widows. UN agencies estimate they make up to 3 million of the total Iraqi population of 32 million. The government insists their number does not exceed 1 million.
Either way, the number of widows grows by at least five each day.
“It is a significant social problem which is of the least concern to the government,” Iraqi women’s rights activist Sana Abdul Hamid told The Arab Weekly.
Abdul Hamid blamed the number of widows on the succession of Iraqi wars, starting with the 1980-88 conflict with Iran.
The numbers of Iraqi men killed in wars grew in the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, the 1991 US-led war to end the Iraqi occupation of the petroleum-rich Gulf emirate and the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq — fighting that left tens of thousands of widowed women.
But there are no government agencies assigned to help widows. Even non-governmental organisations have few programmes related to widowed women.
“As long as the majority of the widows are poor and do not read and write, they become victims of fraud while seeking their rights,” said Amal Obaidi, a lawyer.
“Additionally, there’s official corruption that swallows the salaries allocated to them by the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs,” Obaidi told The Arab Weekly.
A widow’s pension is 120,000 Iraqi dinars — about $95 — a month, barely enough to make ends meet.
“Although it is not that much, only the lucky widows manage to take the money,” said Hayat Aziz, a 28-year-old widow whose husband was killed two years ago in a car bombing in Baghdad. State officials take advantage of illiterate widows by having them sign receipts but then don’t give them their money.
The mother of two sons, the elder of whom is in primary school, Aziz shares a rented apartment with her mother-in-law, who is also a widow. “I am the only breadwinner for the family, so I clean houses to provide for them,” Aziz said.
According to various international organisations, the majority of Iraqi widows are the sole providers for their families.
Mayyasa Thonoun, 70, told The Arab Weekly she lost her husband in a car accident several years ago. Afterwards, her ten sons died, one after the other. Three of Thonoun’s sons were policemen who were assassinated in their native Tel Afer, about 540 kilometres north of Baghdad, while the others were killed when Islamic State (ISIS) militants took over the town last June.
Now, Thonoun is displaced like the other Turkmen families from Tel Afer in Karbala, a city south of Baghdad that houses some of the holiest shrines of the Shia Muslims.
“I don’t have enough money to feed my deceased sons’ seven widows and their children,” Thonoun said, explaining that the money she receives from the state is barely enough to cover her expenses for one week. She did not say if the other three sons had been married.
She said she could not take the pension money of her three sons, the assassinated policemen, to give it to their children.
“A lawyer asked for 3 million Iraqi dinars ($2,536) to help me finish the paperwork but I don’t have money to pay for that,” said Thonoun.
Another widow, 48-year-old Um Mohammed, said she lost her husband at the peak of Iraq’s sectarian violence in 2007.
“I receive, every now and then, money and food from mosques and neighbours”, Um Mohammed, who sells vegetables in Baghdad, told The Arab Weekly.
“I take care of five daughters,” said the woman, who rents a room in a house she shares with a handful of other widows and her daughters.
“Once, I thought of going to Syria, before the civil war there, but someone who used to help me warned me against going there,” she said. “He told me that many young widows, or their young daughters, were forced to take up dirty jobs, like working in nightclubs.”
Young widows are often subjected to sexual harassment but the majority remains silent for fear that police would prosecute them.
“Because of wars and the extraordinary circumstances, widows are always accused of stealing and subject to gossiping,” said Ilham Mahmoud, 32. She is a widow and a lawyer who defends the rights of widows in Iraq.
“Bread-winning widows are under so much pressure,” Mahmoud told The Arab Weekly. She pointed to the absence of a system to guarantee the flow of charity to them.
“They are ignored by the government and I don’t see any progress towards finding a solution to their plight as long as the violence goes on and the government is busy with the war against terrorism,” she added.
It is the state’s duty to uphold the rights of widows and others like orphans. But at present, widows remain in the streets begging for money and food. There may be some light at the end of the tunnel, however: Iraqi widows return to centre stage of Iraqi politics every four years when female parliamentary candidates come vying for their votes during electioneering.