In the Middle East, Iraq has a history of being a leader in promoting women's rights. Even after the fall of Saddam Hussein, women were some of the first to organise across ethnic and religious lines to advocate for democratic change.
But in the throes of war over the last decade, they have been unable to sustain a movement that would allow all Iraqi women — not just the economic and social elite — to fully realise their human and legal rights. While the government is sluggish to respond to violations and conservative social traditions have risen in parts of the country, many women simply do not have a clear understanding of their rights and how to access them.
Building a grassroots movement
Mercy Corps developed the Iraqi Promotion of Women's Rights (I-PWR) programme in 2010 to empower women at the grassroots level. While we work to educate women directly about reading, writing, small business development, maternal health and rights through our Women's Awareness and Inclusion (WAI) programme in southern Iraq, the I-PWR programme spreads the outreach to all 18 governorates of the country by tapping into a network of female grassroots leaders.
These women have done great work on their own; now we're helping expand their impact with continued leadership trainings and by connecting them with each other to share ideas, news and strategies from their region. This is creating a country-wide network to advocate for awareness of women's rights, including holding meetings with policymakers and spearheading a public education campaign. On the ground, the women leaders speak to schools, host workshops and visit women in their homes to hear their concerns and tell them about their rights.
Women who have been abandoned or abused face particular challenges as they try to build a life on their own without a partner. Too often they have no idea how to how to exercise their legal rights for divorce or custody, leaving them vulnerable and powerless. It will take time for a movement to build momentum, but by helping these individual women, the I-PWR leaders are taking it one step at a time.
No longer silent
Zahra, a 31-year-old mother of three, was relieved to be free of her abusive husband when he left a year and a half ago. But with no income of her own, she was barely able to take care of her family without his financial support.
When she was invited to a free workshop hosted by the I-PWR leaders in Wassit, Zahra listened carefully as a lawyer explained the technicalities of women’s rights under Iraqi law. At the end of the meeting, she cried as she described her husband’s abuse. She hadn't requested a divorce because of pervasive customs and traditions — divorce is considered unacceptable in Zahra’s community, and indeed throughout much of Iraq. With a new understanding of her rights and the rights of her children, however, she finally saw that she needed to go to court.
Working closely with a lawyer to file for divorce, Zahra eventually received financial compensation because of her abandonment, including monthly expenses for her children. Filled with a sense of purpose, Zahra is now an I-PWR leader herself and said, “I will continue talking with neighbors and the daughters of relatives not to remain silent about their rights, and claim them.”
A mother's reunion
Um Afrah was lucky — she got a divorce and thought she was free of her troubled marriage. But her ex-husband kept tabs on her activities and threatened to take custody of their daughter if Um Afrah returned to her job as a school clerk.
Desperately afraid of losing her daughter, Um Afrah spend six months at home, but eventually had to return to her job to provide for herself and her child. Only a few days later, her ex-husband kidnapped their daughter on her way home from school. All of Um Afrah’s attempts to reason with him were ignored.
Thankfully, an I-PWR leader found out about Um Afrah's situation and convinced her to submit a complaint to the police station, which would allow her to take the issue to court. At the same time, Um Afrah pursued action on a tribal level by working with the sheikh in her community. Both sides coordinated to return Um Afrah’s daughter to her. And not long after, Um Afrah returned to her job at the school.
Paperwork means life
It's easy to take paperwork for granted, but in Iraq, not knowing the process to get identity documents can have harsh implications for women.
Haneen is one of many women who entered into an “unregistered” marriage. Performed by a religious sheikh, the union was never put into government registers, and Haneen did not get the proper identity documents. Her abusive former husband eventually threw her out of the house, with her baby, and without those documents she was unable to access government support.
I-PWR leaders learned of Haneen’s situation through site visits and coordinated with a lawyer to get her assistance in court to generate a marriage contract, which entitled her and her child to needed identity documents.
“No one can describe my feelings when I really saw these documents," she said. "They mean life for me. I could not do anything without them. Now, I am really more than happy. I am one of the WL network, and will help any women I [find] in difficult situations.”
This story written with support from Venus Hameed and Thuraya Naama.