What Can Be Done for Iraqi Widows?

A women's rights activist and a Baghdad government official agree that the government needs to take action to help the huge number of widows in Iraq -- but they disagree on how to proceed.


"Iraqi widows, especially internally displaced widows in camps, are having a tough time. Most have more than one child and are finding it very hard to feed them," said Mazin al-Shihan, head of Baghdad's Displacement Committee.

"We have reports that some … are being harassed and blackmailed by government officials … More attention must be focused on this segment of the Iraqi people before it is too late," al-Shihan told IRIN.

Citing figures and estimates from government bodies and NGOs, al-Shihan said Iraq had about one million widows, including those whose husbands had died of natural causes, but a further breakdown was not available.

"Such vast numbers of widows could tax any society," he said, expressing the fear that unless something is done, some of these widows or their children could drift into crime or join the insurgency.

Al-Shihan said his committee was drawing up a plan to encourage Iraqi men who lacked the necessary funds for marriage -- to apply for government funding if they wanted to marry a widow.

"In this project, we propose offering 10 million Iraqi dinars [about US$8,500] to men in their late 30s or 40s who can't get married due to soaring prices, if they marry a widow," he said.

Project idea rejected

Women's activist Hanaa Adwar, who heads al-Amal, a Baghdad-based NGO, rejected the project out of hand, saying it smacked of "cruelty as the widow must get married to another man to get the government help".

"What we need is to rehabilitate this segment [of the population] to be independent and productive elements of society -- getting them to be more self-reliant in terms of feeding their children. The government should ensure there are adequate social and health programs [for the widows]," she said.

"Their dignity is violated when they have to stand in long queues to get small sums of government aid which will last for a few days, or when they have to depend solely on their extended families," she said.

Social welfare program

After the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, an Iraqi social welfare programe was created. It provides widows, divorced women, orphans, disabled people and the unemployed with a monthly allowance of 50,000-75,000 Iraqi dinars (US$50-70). However, many aid experts say the money is insufficient.

Umm Amina, a 34-year-old mother of two in northern Baghdad, lost her husband in a mortar attack in one of Baghdad's markets in August 2007.

She lives with her two young daughters in a room in the house she and her husband used to share with her brother-in-law and his family. She has applied unsuccessfully for several jobs in government offices, and thought about working as a cleaner even though she has good educational qualifications. She said the government welfare assistance only lasted "a few days."

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