The plight of women in Iraq today has gone largely ignored, both within Iraqi society and by the international community. For more than five years, headlines have been dominated by political and social turmoil, the chaos of conflict and widespread violence. This has overshadowed the abysmal state of the civilian population’s day-to-day lives, a result of that very turmoil and violence.
Behind the headlines, essential services have collapsed, families have been torn apart and women in particular have fallen victim to the consequences of war. The specific hardships that some of Iraq’s most vulnerable individuals cope with on a daily basis, as told by them, have overwhelmingly gone unheard.
As an international humanitarian agency working with Iraqi non-governmental organizations that help civilians on the ground, Oxfam last year conceived the idea of conducting a survey of women in Iraq who have been affected by the conflict, many of who represent some of the most at risk families in the country. The largest group of women interviewed who are deemed especially vulnerable, consists of those widowed by conflict who are now acting as the head of her household, and who have been driven deep into poverty. This survey is a follow up to Oxfam’s 2007 report ‘Rising to the Humanitarian Challenge in Iraq,’ which found that one-third of the Iraqi population was in need of humanitarian assistance and that essential services were in ruins.
At the time, there was a striking absence in the public sphere of a collective female voice from the cities, towns and villages of Iraq about the specific challenges women and their families face on a daily basis. In fact, there was very little comprehensive, detailed information available about the daily challenges of the Iraqi civilian population as a whole and their struggle to make ends meet – largely due to rampant insecurity. So a team of Oxfam-supported surveyors last year fanned out across the country, knocked on doors, and unlocked hundreds of women’s voices that, until that point, had found nobody to listen.
Oxfam and the Al-Amal Association, the Iraqi partner organization that conducted the survey in the five provinces of Baghdad, Basra, Kirkuk, Najaf and Nineveh, do not claim that the information they gathered from 1,700 respondents represents the situation facing all Iraqis, or even all women in Iraq. However, it does provide a disturbing snapshot of many women’s lives and those of their children and other family members. The information presented in this paper was collected over a period of several months, starting in the summer of 2008.
The women revealed that their families’ everyday lives had worsened in many cases since Oxfam released its humanitarian report – and despite the improved overall security situation in Iraq that began in mid-2007. Not only did a large proportion of women say that access to basic services had grown more difficult, but they also told surveyors that they had become more and more impoverished over the past six years, and that their own personal safety remained a pressing concern.
Some of the survey results were:
- Nearly 60% of women said that safety and security continued to be their number one concern despite improvements in overall security in Iraq
- As compared with 2007 & 2006, more than 40% of respondents said their security situation worsened last year & slightly more than 22% said it had remained static compared to both years
- 55% had been a victim of violence since 2003; 22% of women had been victims of domestic violence; More than 30% had family members who died violently.
- Some 45% of women said their income was worse in 2008 compared with 2007 and 2006, while roughly 30% said it had not changed in that same time period
- 33% had received no humanitarian assistance since 2003
- 76% of widows said they did not receive a pension from the government
- Nearly 25% of women had no daily access to drinking water & half of those who did have daily access to water said it was not potable; 69% said access to water was worse or the same as it was in 2006 & 2007
- One-third of respondents had electricity 3 hours or less per day; two-thirds had 6 hours or less; 80% said access to electricity was more difficult or the same as in 2007, 82% said the same in comparison to 2006 and 84% compared to 2003
- Nearly half of women said access to quality healthcare was more difficult in 2008 compared with 2006 and 2007
- 40% of women with children reported that their sons and daughters were not attending school
After analyzing the survey results, it was also found that 35.5% of participants were acting as head of the household, primarily as a result of conflict. Nearly 25% of women had not been married. If this reflects Iraq as a whole, it is the highest rate in the larger region, a result of the loss of men of marrying age as a result of the conflict. 55% percent of women said they had been displaced or forced to abandon their homes at least once since 2003. Nearly half reported sharing their homes with other families.
In early 2009, reports of improved security in Iraq, and even a return to ‘normality,’ began appearing in the media. Similar reports of diminished suicide bombs and other violent indiscriminate attacks emerged at the time of the initial data collection last year. However insecurity remains in many provinces including Baghdad, Kirkuk and Nineveh where small-scale attacks, assassination and kidnappings continue. Women in particular are less safe now than at any other time during the conflict or in the years before.
Beyond security, the overwhelming concern women voiced was extreme difficulty accessing basic services such as clean water, electricity and adequate shelter despite billions of US dollars that have been spent in the effort to rehabilitate damaged or destroyed infrastructure. Availability of essentials such as water, sanitation and health care is far below national averages. Both the Iraqi organization and researcher that carried out the survey and analyzed its findings corroborated that the overall challenges facing women and the Iraqi population as a whole remained the same in early 2009 as they did in the second half of 2008 when the data presented in this paper was collected.
Women especially appear to have been hard hit by the crippled essential services sector because many have also been driven into debilitating poverty since 2003. The survey and more detailed interviews revealed that a large number of women have been left unable to earn an income because many of their husbands or sons – the family breadwinners – had been killed, disappeared, abducted or suffered from mental or physical illness. Although there are no precise figures, it is estimated that there are now some 740,000 widows in Iraq.
Many of the women interviewed reported that they have been unable to secure financial assistance, in the form of a widow’s pension, or compensation from the government for the loss or debilitating injury of family members during the current conflict or previous ones. Of the widows that were surveyed (25% of respondents), 76% said that they were not receiving a pension from the government. As a result, women who are now acting as head of household are much less likely to be able to afford to send their children to school, pay fees to access private community generators or buy clean water and medicines.
In summary, now that overall security situation, although still very fragile, begins to stabilize, and as the Iraqi government is now benefiting from tens of billions of dollars in oil revenues (despite falling global prices), countless mothers, wives, widows and daughters of Iraq remain caught in the grip of a silent emergency. They are in urgent need of protection and – along with their families – are in desperate need of regular access to affordable and quality basic services, and urgently require enhanced humanitarian and financial assistance. Considering recent security gains, it is in the best interest of the Iraqi government to now begin robust investment into the lives of the war-battered civilian population, with the support – including technical support – of the international community.