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Iraq: women in war

05-03-2009 Field Newsletter

The ICRC's Iraq delegation has produced a newsletter containing testimonies from Iraqi women facing the effects of conflict and explaining how the ICRC is helping them to cope.

  ©ICRC/ N.Saleh    

  ©ICRC/ N.Saleh    

  ©ICRC/ N.Saleh    
  Full text of the newsletter in PDF format:

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    Iraq: Women in War  
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 Over the past 30 years, Iraqi women have repeatedly suffered the effects of armed conflict. Since 2003, they have increasingly been caught in the crossfire, killed or wounded in mass explosions and displaced from their homes. Women are targeted for their behaviour and role in society, they are raped, kidnapped or assassinated and they are especially vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation.  

Women killed or kidnapped during conflict 

Hundreds of women have been targeted as professionals or for their public role in Iraq. In the medical profession alone, many have fled or abandoned their work, triggering a brain drain and crippling the health system.

While both men and women are kidnapped, for many women the trauma of abduction does not end with release. The shame associated with the event is a lasting stigma.

Women in custody 

Women are a small minority of the detainees visited but as most prisons are designed to house male detai nees, the ICRC closely monitors their specific needs during visits.



Time does not always heal 

Thousands of Iraqis have gone missing over the last decades. Wives and children are suspended in limbo, unable to mourn or to move on with their lives. Many spend years searching. In the absence of any proof of death, widows cannot obtain a pension or remarry.

The plight of households headed by women 

Decades of conflict in Iraq have left an estimated 1 to 3 million households headed by women. Thousands of families have been torn apart because a husband and father has been killed, is still missing or detained.

Iraqi society and its patriarchal system do not make life easy for a woman without a man. Without a male relative, a woman lacks economic, physical and social protection and support.

 Left without support  

Deprived of traditional sources of income, women are forced to adopt roles that women are not expected to take on in Iraq, and for which they were not brought up. The community is often unprepared for this shift. Jobs are difficult to find without previous experience or a diploma. Social barriers and discrimination limit women's access to work. There are few options left for women whose relatives refuse to help, or are unable to help because they are already struggling to make ends meet.

Without an income or family support, w omen can only turn to the government for help. Not nearly enough manage to access this kind of support and at any rate the widow's pension is a fraction of what is needed for a family to survive.

 The struggle to survive  


Many households headed by women live in poverty and destitution. This was underlined during an ICRC survey, where the average income among vulnerable households headed by women interviewed was below IQD 150,000 per month ($125), most of which comes from relatives and charity. This is less than half the estimated minimum monthly expenditure per household.

Low income and poor living conditions affect women's health and make it more difficult for them to obtain medical care. A significant number suffer from anaemia and many have difficulty paying for medicines or a doctor. In a number of cases, they are unable to pay for their children's education.

 State responsibility  


A wide network of charity support exists, including humanitarian organizations, the public food distribution system, mosques, neighbours and relatives. All these help families to stay afloat and survive, but they do not enable them to change their situation long-term. Families need independent sources of income, either from work or from the State. Strong, comprehensive support from the government, together with income-generating activities for those who have the skills, are desperately needed to alleviate the plight of many families headed by women.

 Helping households headed by women  

In 2008, the ICRC worked with a number of local NGOs to supply food and hygiene items to vulnerable families headed by women. All these families had lost their male breadwinners due to the conflict. Over 3,000 such households received food, hygiene items, or essential household items, depending on their needs.