Iraq's ex-minister for women's rights speaks out

10th March 2009, Comments 0 comments

Minister: "I was convinced that I could improve conditions for women but I ran into a wall."

Baghdad -- When she was made Iraqi minister for women's rights, Nawal al-Samarrai threw herself enthusiastically into the job. But six months later she resigned, saying the government cares little for the plight of women.

"I have lots of will power, I'm tenacious," Samarrai, wearing a beige headscarf, told AFP in the hotel where she lives in Baghdad's high-security Green zone, in an interview marking International Women's Day on Sunday. "I was convinced that I could improve conditions for women, but I ran into a wall."

"The occupation, terrorism, the economy collapsing ... all that produced an army of widows, an increase in the number of divorcees, unmarried women, women beggars," the 47-year-old gynaecologist added.

According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, between one and three million Iraqi families are now headed by women after seemingly endless years of war.

"Society is falling apart and me, I was a minister in a ministry without means, without power, without offices outside Baghdad," said Samarrai.

The ministry had a budget of just 7,500 dollars a month, salaries excluded, Samarrai said.

"How can you work? she asked. "I protested, I insisted. None of my requests were met, or only partly."

Money to organise a women's conference? Samarrai would receive at best half if not a quarter of the amount needed. Or worse still, a letter from the prime minister's office saying that no cash was available.

Aid agency Oxfam released a report on Sunday to highlight what it called the desperation of daily hardships Iraqi women face.

"Iraqi women are suffering a ‘silent emergency,’ trapped in a downward spiral of poverty, desperation and personal insecurity despite an overall decrease in violence in the country," the British-based group said.

It urged the Baghdad government to launch a "surge" of investment to revive social services.

Appointed in July, Samarrai, a former member of parliament's health committee, resigned on February 3.

She said the ministry's monthly budget has since been slashed to 1,500 dollars amid widespread cuts. And she has not been replaced.

However, Samarrai said she would go back "if they give me the means to carry out the work."

Despite living in a conservative Muslim country where women's rights are a minority issue and the aftermath of war dominates nearly all aspects of life, Samarrai says her demands were still reasonable.

"If I had called for... equality between men and women in these circumstances they could have told me 'it's not the right time.'

"But all I want is a solution for widows, female detainees, beggars, the victims of violence and the displaced," said the former MP for the National Concord Front, a Sunni party.

"Women's issues are not a priority for the government. But if women were helped, I think that half of the social problems would be resolved."

The mother of five said only a small number of the women who have lost their husbands receive a widow's pension of 60 dollars a month. Such women can be particularly vulnerable and easy prey for extremists, she said.

Samarrai cited the example of the so-called "Mother of the Believers" who recruited 80 mainly young women in Iraq to carry out suicide attacks before being arrested in January. Twenty-eight successfully completed their missions.

"Did she recruit a woman teacher, a doctor? No, she went to uneducated women on whom society had closed the door," Samarrai said.

The former minister said she had managed to obtain the release from prison of one recruit whose mother had been burned alive by militiamen. Her father and brother were also both killed in the violence that swept Iraq in recent years.

The woman, 22, had been left with five sisters and a three-year-old brother.

"People came to see her and promised housing and money in exchange for information... little by little she was asked to wear a veil and then promised paradise" if she carried out a suicide attack.

Oxfam international executive director Jeremy Hobbs said "women are the forgotten victims of Iraq.

"Despite the billions of dollars poured into rebuilding Iraq and recent security gains, a quarter of the women interviewed still do not have daily access to water, a third cannot send their children to school and since the war started, over half have been the victim of violence."

More than three quarters of widows receive no government pension, which they are entitled to, Hobbs added, quoting a survey carried out among 1,700 women by Iraq's Al-Amal Association.

Samarrai, from the northern city of Mosul, also referred to an increase in "honour crimes," wife-beating and sexual harassment in Iraq and noted a dearth of government statistics on such issues.

Historically, Iraqi women have enjoyed relatively more rights than many of their counterparts in the Middle East but after the 1991 Gulf War, their position deteriorated rapidly.

By the final years of Saddam Hussein's regime most women had been relegated to traditional roles at home as the country struggled to survive repeated wars, punishing UN sanctions and rising Islamic fundamentalism.

Ines Bel Aiba/AFP/Expatica

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