More than 90 women become widows each day due to continuing violence countrywide, according to government officials and non-governmental organisations devoted to women’s issues.
“Hundreds of households are losing their heads due to ongoing violence, causing a drop in living standards,” said Mayada Zuhair, a spokesperson for the Women’s Rights Association (WRA). “More women now have to search for work to support their children.”
“In addition to being widowed, these women don’t get any government support,” Mayada added, “nor are their rights respected.”
Although few reliable statistics are available on the total number of widows in Iraq, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs says that there are at least 300,000 in Baghdad alone, with another eight million throughout the country.
Officials point out that at least 15 police officers’ wives become widows every day because police constitute major targets for the insurgency. “Every married police officer is concerned about what he will bequeath his family,” said senior police officer Major Khalid Maruf. “They fear that death is around the corner.”
Thousands of Iraqi women lost their husbands during the ten-year war with Iran in the 1980s. This number rose further during the 1991 US-led war with Iraq following the latter’s invasion of Kuwait.
Local NGOs say the situation has become even more critical since the 2003 US-led invasion of the country, which has given rise to increasing violence and sectarian killing. “Saddam Hussein was responsible for killing thousands of men during his 25 years of brutal rule,” said Ibtissam Kamal, a member of a local organisation that works on the issue but which prefers anonymity for security reasons. “But more people have died during the past three years, most of them men whose families are now without support.”
Ibtissam’s NGO, which has received threats more than five times in the past three months, is devoted to empowering women by preparing them for employment. “We’re looking for funds to support these women and try to reintegrate them into society,” Ibtissam said. “We want to empower them by getting them jobs, instead of having them rely solely on remarriage as a means of raising their orphaned children.”
The Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs is also looking into ways of helping widows who have lost husbands as a result of violence. According to a senior ministry official, projects currently being studied include the creation of more job opportunities and the establishment of free day-care centres.
As is common with many of the government’s more altruistic plans, however, funding remains an overriding concern. “A lot of investment is required to implement these projects, and the ministry lacks funding for new initiatives,” said Sinan Youssef, an official at the social affairs ministry’s strategy department.
Youssef added that many marginalised groups were suffering from a lack of government assistance. “We expect international NGOs to help us provide these widows with the necessary support to raise their children,” he said.
Under the Saddam Hussein regime, widows of “martyrs”, particularly during the Iran-Iraq war, were provided with compensation and free education for their children. In some cases, they were provided with free homes.
Under the current system, however, no such safety net exists, and widows have few resources at their disposal. “I lost my husband six months ago, and don’t have parents to help me, because they died in the Iran-Iraq war,” said recently-widowed Yousra Ibraheem, 38. “My late husband supported me, but left me with no means of sustenance.”