Households headed by women in Iraq: a case for action

24-08-2011 Field Newsletter

This survey was conducted between September and December 2010 in five governorates directly affected by the conflict. The vast majority (92%) of the women interviewed were widows; the others were wives of detainees or of men who had gone missing, or divorcees. City officials, village heads, religious leaders and local NGOs were also interviewed to find out how they viewed women heading households.

On some nights, they sleep in tears. On others, they do their best to chase away their nightmares and pray for peace of mind. Widows, and women whose husbands are missing or detained, suddenly have thrust upon them the responsibility of putting food on the table, and the daily struggle to keep their children in school.

Over the past 30 years, armed conflicts and sectarian violence have ravaged Iraq, resulting in hundreds of thousands of casualties, and in widowed women suddenly being in charge of their families.

Although no official statistics are available, it is estimated that there are over one million women in Iraq who must head their households. In such a deeply patriarchal society, very few women work outside the home. So once they lose their breadwinner, their lives undergo drastic and fundamental change.

After the death of their husband, many women find themselves obliged to flee to a safer place, away from familiar social networks. They seek refuge in their extended families. Often, however, they become a burden for their relatives, who are struggling with their own economic difficulties.

Women who suddenly find themselves alone, without an income of their own, have to find ways of coping with new and formidable difficulties. They find themselves performing tasks traditionally assigned to men, striving to make ends meet, very often without success.

Women heading households are particularly vulnerable in a country where violence remains widespread. Although Iraqi society has become more inclined to accept that these women have to work and gain independence, change is slow and job opportunities are scarce. By the time the women adapt to their new role as head of the family, their children could be plunged into absolute poverty.

Women heading households are therefore in urgent need of support from their community, from humanitarian organizations and, most importantly, from the State of Iraq. All eligible needy families must receive the monthly welfare allowance they are entitled to, in all governorates of Iraq.

Since 2008, the ICRC has developed a range of programmes, such as relief distributions, micro-economic initiatives and support for women seeking to register for the social welfare benefit, to help meet some of the needs of households headed by women.

In the last half of 2010, as part of the ICRC's continuing assessment of humanitarian needs, ICRC staff carried out 119 in-depth interviews with families headed by women in Iraq.

The results of the survey reveal a sad reality, while also providing some cause for hope. Above all, they demonstrate the urgent need to take action to help these women and their children in order to give them a chance for a better future.



Khanaqin, Iraq. These two women are the sole breadwinners for their families.
© ICRC / M. Pawlak


Basra, Iraq. Iman, one the participants in the ICRC’s micro-economic initiative.
© Ed Ou/Reportage by Getty Images for the ICRC


Khanaqin. Female heads of household recount their experiences.