Iraq: Focus on women's needs
Refugees International is concerned that the U.S.
government and the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance
(ORHA) are not making women's issues a top priority. Within ORHA, for
example, there is only a part-time gender focal point, and RI has been
unable to obtain any specific information or strategy from U.S. government
agencies concerning programs designed to improve the lives of women.
Many women were in a precarious situation before the latest war, and now,
as a result of recent hostilities, their situation has deteriorated even
further. It will take years before women will reach the standard of living
and access to services that they experienced before the first Gulf War in
1991. The challenge at this point is to provide Iraqi women the assistance
they require so that they can begin to reclaim the rights and access to
services that have been denied them in the past 13 years.
Reproductive health is a critical component of any emergency program. In
Iraq the situation is not receiving the same attention as other emergency
programs such as food, water, and electricity. Although data for Iraq is
poor, available statistics suggest a desperate situation for women's
Due to inadequate nutrition and limited pre-natal care, between
50-70 percent of pregnant women are estimated to be anemic, and roughly 23
percent of infants are born with low birth weights. According to the UN
Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA), since 1991 maternal mortality has
almost doubled. In 1989, there were an estimated 160 deaths per 100,000
live births, while in 2000 the figure increased to 291. Only 14 percent of
women use contraceptives, although according to an UNFPA official, there is
a high demand for family planning services.
Since the war began, there are reports of increased numbers of stillbirths
and complicated deliveries, and the psychological impact of the war on
women's health, while still unknown, is a potentially serious problem.
Anecdotal evidence of high levels of miscarriages, birth defects, and
cancer suggests possible environmental contamination. A thorough assessment
of women's health must be undertaken immediately to identify the greatest
Before 1991, female literacy rates were among the highest in the region,
and Iraq had achieved nearly universal primary education for both girls and
boys. Because of war and sanctions, the younger generation has been
deprived of quality education and has not enjoyed the same opportunities as
their parents, giving rise to the term "sanction generation."
adult female literacy rates and girls' enrollment rates decreased, and in
2000, it was estimated that 31 percent of girls were not attending school,
nearly twice the number of boys who were not in school. UNICEF officials
attribute this decrease mainly to poverty and inadequate education
infrastructure rather than attitudes opposing education for girls, although
these attitudes still persist. Informal "catch up programs" will be
necessary in order to raise the level of education of the "sanction
Education is one of the best ways to protect children. If children are in
school, they are less vulnerable to banditry, sexual exploitation and
landmine incidents. A UNICEF official expressed concern that the lengthy
process of curriculum revision and "de-Ba'athification" of educational
materials may take precedence over the quick return of children to school.
While purging the curriculum of Ba'ath influence is a critical mid-term
project, Iraqi children should not be asked to wait for this effort to be
fully completed. The biggest priority should be encouraging children,
particularly girls, to return to school as soon as possible.
Despite the obvious importance of education, the appeal from UNICEF, the
lead agency on education, is only 30% funded. The U.S. strategy is to
revitalize the education sector through a large Agency for International
Development (AID) contract with a U.S.-based private sector consulting
firm. How closely the AID contractor will coordinate with UNICEF, the
international agency with the longest experience with education in Iraq, is
Inclusion of women in decision-making regarding the creation of, as well as
their participation in, the transitional government is critical to ensure
that their needs are met. In the 2002 Arab Development Report, based on
1995 data, Iraq ranked highest in terms of women's empowerment. So far, the
political process being organized by the U.S. is not building on this
obvious strength. At the first post-Saddam political meeting in Nasiriya,
there were only four women, all exiles, out of 123 in attendance. In a
meeting of future Iraqi leaders held in Baghdad on April 28, there were
only a handful of women present.
After decades of oppressive rule, with the exception of northern Iraq,
independent organizations of civil society are almost non-existent. Under
the Saddam regime, the Ba'ath party General Federation of Iraqi Women was
the most active women's organization with a membership of around 1.5
million women, but the government did not tolerate the existence of women's
NGOs. Such organizations will no doubt spring up in the coming months, but
they will require nurturing to become effective advocates and service
providers for Iraqi women.
Refugees International, therefore, recommends that:
The U.S. and ORHA make reproductive health, particularly emergency
obstetrics, a priority and provide funding to agencies and organizations
providing such services.
The U.S. and ORHA appoint a gender advisor for each of the 19
Governorates in Iraq to ensure that humanitarian assistance,
reconstruction, and civil administration incorporate the needs of Iraqi women.
Coalition military forces provide special protection to women and
girls to prevent gender-based violence and ensure safe access to education
and health services.
Reflecting Iraqi norms, at least 30 percent of ORHA civil service
appointments and participants in meetings about the transitional government
Donor governments provide full funding to multilateral programs
addressing women's needs.
The UN agencies -- UNFPA, UNICEF, World Health Organization -- in
collaboration with the nascent Iraqi Ministry of Health and Hospital
directorates conduct a rapid assessment of women's health and begin
responding to women's health needs.
Advocate Michelle Brown is based in Washington, DC. Field Representative
Shannon Meehan is currently assessing humanitarian conditions in Iraq.
Date: 30 Apr 2003