Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Women Excluded from Post-War Reconstruction

Women have an important role to play in building a democratic Iraq, but they have so far been conspicuous by their absence.
By Ghida al-Juburi

It is, admittedly, early days. But women, who make up an estimated 65 per cent of the Iraqi population, have so far been conspicuous only by their absence in post-war reconstruction efforts.


There has been much talk about how to reflect the diversity of Iraqi society by including Shias, Sunnis, Kurds, Turkoman and Christians in the building of a new and democratic Iraq. But what about women?


Recent reports show that the US-backed Iraqi Reconstruction Group had only five women among its 30 members. In the US-supported meeting of opponents of Saddam Hussein's regime in Nasiriya in early April, only four of the 80 selected delegates were women. None of the 13 legal experts assembled by the US Justice Department to help rebuild Iraq's court system are women.


Historically, women's involvement in the initial stages of reconstruction is critical to success. They help to keep local economies running and often have informal social service systems that serve as a foundation for reconstruction.


In Mali and Liberia, women joined together to collect arms. During the Taleban rule in Afghanistan, they ran schools for girls, provided health care for women and set up home-based work to support their families. After the genocide in Rwanda, 50 women, both Hutu and Tutsi, organised widows to support each other and war orphans regardless of ethnicity. Today the group they formed, the Avega Association, has more than 10,000 members and provides social and health services.


Iraqi women have traditionally enjoyed many rights including equal pay, professional autonomy and high literacy rates that were unlike neighbouring Middle Eastern countries.


As early as the 1920s, women in Iraq began to work and accept positions in the job market. By 1970, the Iraqi constitution declared women and men equal before law and the former soon became among the most educated and professional in the region. A working Iraqi mother received five years of maternity leave. By 1980, they could vote and run for election.


In the 1980s, women held 20 per cent of Iraq's parliamentary seats - more than the 14 per cent held by women in the US Congress.


After the 1991 Gulf war and the introduction of economic embargoes and sanctions, however, women's rights in Iraq began to deteriorate along with living conditions. They began to lose their jobs. Girls abandoned their education. Female literacy declined sharply as young girls and women focused all their efforts on searching for food, money and clean water. Some women looked to prostitution to provide for their children and families.


In the mid-1990s, Saddam Hussein began to impose anti-women legislation.


Many felt that once Saddam Hussein and his regime were removed from power, women would be re-empowered in Iraq. But if they are not involved in the initial stages of the post-war reconstruction process, their voices may be stifled for a lot longer than anticipated.


Women in post-war Iraq will require help in reproductive health services, education and political participation. In order to give them an opportunity to play an active role in building a new Iraq, the US and all domestic and international donors need to address these critical areas.


It is true that emergency programmes such as food, water and electricity need priority attention, but reproductive health is a critical aspect of any such scheme. Since the war's inception, there have been reports of increased stillbirths, complicated deliveries, high levels of miscarriages, serious birth defects and environmental contaminations that are jeopardising the health of mothers and children. Child mortality has increased due to, among other things, decreased breast feeding, low birth weights among newborns, and anaemia in mothers.


The US and other reconstruction participants need to make emergency obstetrics and reproductive health a priority. Advisers need to be appointed to address the specific humanitarian needs of Iraqi women. Military forces need to afford special protection to women and girls to prevent gender-based violence and to ensure access to health care and education. Women's education needs to be addressed in order to start closing the gap between boys and girls. Appointments in government and civil service administration need to incorporate women.


United Nations Resolution 1325 clearly states that women must be included in all aspects of peace-making and peace-building discussions. Iraq has signed the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, as well as the Convention of the Rights of the Child.


It is easy to say that post-war Iraq should be democratic. The question to address is how to make this happen. Democracy and the role of women can and should be successful partners in community reconstruction in Iraq. The new system of justice can and should be based on the area's historical, political, religious and cultural foundations - and these foundations include a role for women. If a truly democratic government is to be built in Iraq, we may debate how this democracy should be implemented. But there should be no question that women need to be integrated into every step of the process.


Ghida al-Juburi is an Iraqi-American attorney.