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Iraq: making the best of a bad situation

02-03-2010 Feature

After decades of war in Iraq, many families are destitute or living in poverty. Many male breadwinners have been detained or killed or have disappeared. ICRC delegate Caroline Douilliez met with two Iraqi women, who told her how they ensure their family's survival.

" It was a daily struggle to find food and get by, knocking on every door to get help or ask for money. I couldn't see farther than the evening; there was no tomorrow " . Six months ago, Siham*. was a woman without hope. In 2004, her husband disappeared on his way to visit a friend, and he has been missing ever since. The same year, her daughter Salma, a mother of two young girls, was widowed when her husband was captured by an armed group, tortured and killed. In 2006, Siham’s eldest son, Mahmoud, a driver, was killed in a road accident. In 2007, her second son, Ammer, a TV technician, was caught in crossfire and paralysed from the waist down. Since that fateful event he has been spending his days lying on a mattress in the living room.

And as if this succession of tragedies were not enough, the situation in Siham's neighbourhood in Baghdad became so dangerous that she and her bereaved family had to flee and join the hundreds of thousands of displaced Iraqis, settling in Amara, in Missan Governorate, in southern Iraq. Having lost almost all their belongings, Siham, her disabled son, and her widowed daughter with her two teenage girls struggled to pay the rent for a small run-down house in the middle of a garbage-filled neighbourhood. At 24, her youngest and only able-bodied son became the sole breadwinner and struggled to find daily work.

The fate of Siham's family is common in Iraq today. Since 2003, 80 – 90 per cent of the people killed as the result of the conflict in the country are men. According to estimates, between 1 and 3 million households are headed by women ­− widows, wives of missing persons or detainees, and divorcees or women who have been abandoned by their husban ds. In a country where women traditionally depend on men as breadwinners and social protectors, those who suddenly have to take responsibility for the survival of their families face tremendous challenges. Their relatives cannot help them, since they are themselves struggling in a failing economy. Women often have limited education and no job experience. What is more, Iraqi society is not ready for such a shift in traditional roles. Jobs are scarce, and men are usually given precedence. Due to conservative attitudes, a woman who leaves her home every day is liable to taint her reputation. 

There are several support mechanisms, such as a welfare allowance for women who have no breadwinners, but although efforts have been made in the last year, there are still too many women who do not have access to it.

 Facing up to the challenge  


When the ICRC first visited Siham in April 2009 to find out how to help her by financing a small project, she and her daughter Salma came up with the idea of running a small business in the neighbourhood. They planned to sell meat, chicken or ice cream. With financial support from the ICRC, they invested in a freezer and products and started their business from home. Customers now come to their home every day from all around the neighbourhood.

Neither Siham nor her daughter ever had a job before. They were both married at 14. Only Salma can read and write, so she is in charge of the accounts and responsible for ensuring that there is enough money to buy new stocks. She has already filled five notebooks. " Even though we don't earn much and a lot of customers ask to pay in instalments, the business still covers all our daily expenses, " she says. The smell of chicken cooking on the stove is testimony to the new comfort their work has brought the household. Salma is particularly proud. " I have been able to buy a TV and better clothes for my teenage daughters, " she says. " Now we're busy every day planning how to expand the business. We have already added flour and rice to the staples we sell, and we've tried selling cooked meals. Now we're thinking of selling small furniture. "  

To help women cover their families’ basic needs, the ICRC in Iraq has launched over 20 similar income-generating projects in collaboration with local non-governmental organizations in Baghdad, Basra and Najaf. In addition, the ICRC supports women when they apply for their welfare allowance and monitors the administrative process.

Siham and Salma now need to find the energy to continue to fight for their rights. " It's a good feeling to have our own money and the community accepting our business because we have no men to take care of us. But if we had husbands, we would never have worked " . Yet Salma intends her daughters to follow tradition. Now 13 and 15 years old, they stopped going to school several years ago and will soon be married.

* The names have been changed.



Amara City, Iraq. ICRC staff visit widows supported by the organization in carrying out income-generating projects.
© ICRC / M Greub


Amara City, Iraq. Supported by the ICRC, widows Siham (left) and her daughter Salma at home, from where they run their small business.
© ICRC / M. Greub


Amara City, Iraq. Salma and her mother, Siham, mainly sell clothes and frozen foods.
© ICRC / M. Greub