Displacement Through the Eyes of Iraqi Women

Posted by Anne C. Richard
June 1, 2012
Small Boy at IDP Settlement in Iraq

As the newly confirmed Assistant Secretary responsible for refugee programs and policy, I made my first overseas trip to Iraq to see our programs first-hand. Sitting in a small room off a dusty Baghdad street, I met the gaze of several women, all dressed head-to-toe in black. Despite their plain dress, their eyes were lively and alert. Two small children darted in and out, staying close to their mother. The grandmother was across the room. As we made introductions, I learned that the women were nearly all widows. Several husbands and adult sons had died during the violent period that erupted in Iraq after the Samarra Mosque bombing of 2006.

Since 2003, the U.S. government has been committed to helping Iraqis who are displaced within their own country -- people we refer to as IDPs or "internally displaced persons." Under international guidelines, the Government of Iraq is responsible for the well-being of their own citizens. But, only some of the help these women need has reached them. The State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration supports the United Nations and other organizations that are working with the Government of Iraq to find solutions for the precarious situation of these women and many others like them throughout Iraq.

In the past year, our assistance has focused on improving housing for over 5,900 IDP families, as well as providing clean water and sanitation. We've supported jobs and skills training for nearly 55,000 IDPs, health programs, and help to women and girls who are victims of violence. These programs address problems that are found throughout Iraq and in IDP communities. To provide these services, the State Department contributed nearly $290 million to international organizations such as UNHCR, WHO, UNICEF, and WFP. We remain committed to continuing this support.

Today, Iraqi troops and police are now in charge of securing the country, and the country's future is very much in the hands of the Iraqis. The American presence is led by diplomats at the U.S. Embassy which has a small section concerned with the welfare of Iraqi refugees and IDPs who work closely with the Iraqi government to develop sustainable ways to assist Iraq's most vulnerable.

Inside the small house, the atmosphere was warm, while also tinged with sadness. Speaking through interpreters, the women expressed appreciation for our visit before sharing stories about the sad fates of their husbands and their struggle to survive.

The eldest widow sat across from her daughter and daughter-in-law as she relayed how her family had been forced to move after losing all of the adult male relatives. In 2004, her husband died of natural causes, making her dependent on family members for support. When her oldest son was killed in sectarian violence in 2006, she assumed responsibility for his nine children. Her daughter and a grandchild joined her after the daughter's husband -- her son-in-law -- was killed in one of the many random bomb explosions of that period. Subsequently, her younger son's wife and another two grandchildren also joined her household. The daughter-in-law, the only wage earner in the family, provides a meager income by sewing clothing for people in the community. With heavy clothing only in demand from January through March, the family complained that even sewing offered only a seasonal income.

They explained that they had originally lived in a different part of the neighborhood called Dora. Without male relatives to work and earn a living for the family, they could not afford the rents in their original homes. They were now "squatters," living in small crowded rooms in a run-down area that had been constructed illegally on government land. All of their identity and registration cards, however, listed their former addresses. They needed valid and up-to-date registration cards to receive the government benefits to which they were entitled -- things like food rations and health care. They begged us to help intervene with the authorities to get them registered.

Estimates of the numbers of widows in Iraq range from 750,000 to 1.5 million, or between 2.4 percent and 5 percent of the population -- no one knows for sure as there has not been a recent census. In Iraqi society, women traditionally do not work outside of the home. However, the women at this site emphasized that they needed jobs to provide for their children.

Iraq remains a dangerous place and our visit was not announced in advance but the visit was eye opening and well worth the effort it takes to get out and meet ordinary Iraqis.

Later, I raised the plight of the widows with senior Iraqi officials. They were determined to make progress on housing issues and acknowledged problems with registrations -- although they also expressed concerns about the squatters occupying government land.

I also discussed the situation of the widows and related issues with the gender committee of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. This innovative committee is made up of staff from different parts of the embassy -- those who care about rule of law, others working on economic development, and our staff who aid refugees and the displaced. They come together to share notes on challenges and learn from each other's achievements.

In the days ahead, I'll keep talking about these women. Their warm welcome and hospitality, their interested faces, and the grave situation described to me -- all these things will stay with me for a while.

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