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

Women's Ministry Lacks Support

Two years after the ministry was formed, its scope to bring about change is severely constrained by its miniscule budget.
The Iraqi government is not giving the moral and financial support the women's affairs ministry needs to make real changes in Iraq, women's advocates say.

The post of minister of state for women's affairs was established in July 2004 as part of former interim prime minister Ayad Allawi's cabinet. Two years later, critics say the government has paid only symbolic attention to women's issues. Nor have politicians delivered on the pledges they made to promote women's rights in their election campaigns.

While their offices technically count as ministries, Iraq’s ministers of state have to work with limited staff and budgets to administer small projects. There are six ministers of state in the 34-member cabinet.

The neglect of the women's affairs ministry has continuing under Iraq's first permanent government, which was formed in May. According to the ministry’s executive director-general, Saweba Nasraddin, the department receives an allocation of just 2,000 US dollars a month to carry out its programmes, whereas other ministries have budgets running into hundreds of millions of dollars.

The 2,000 dollars is, at least, twice what the ministry got under former prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari's government of 2005, but women's advocates are still frustrated with what they say is merely token support.

Nasraddin said that as a result of its tiny budget, the ministry has never been able to carry though its agenda for women's political, social and cultural issues.

"The reality is that women's affairs and raising their status have not been priorities for the Iraqi government, which is why [the ministry] doesn't have enough support," said Nasraddin.

Faiza Babakhan, a former ministry consultant and lawmaker, said the women’s affairs office functions like a non-governmental organisation, NGO, because it depends more on international donors than on the cabinet. The ministry has received grants from organisations such as UNIFEM, the United Nations Development Fund for Women, over the past two years.

This year has been particularly tough for women's activists, as the issue of female political power and representation took a back seat to efforts to bring Iraq's main religious and ethnic groups in the government.

Under former minister Azhar al-Shekhli, ministry staff lobbied parliament in a bid to get it to take the ministry seriously and give it a proper budget. Babakhan said the new cabinet is currently looking at a request to strengthen the ministry, which would see its funding increased and the title of minister of state - currently held by Fatin Abdel-Rahman - upgrade to full ministerial rank.

Many female members of the National Assembly support the plan. The Iraqi the constitution required that women account for a quarter of the legislature’s membership.

"As a women lawmaker and activist, I support this ministry, especially as Iraq goes through this critical time, which has affected Iraqi women worst," said lawmaker Maysoon al-Damaluji.

The ongoing violence has forced families to flee their homes and created high unemployment, leaving women more vulnerable than ever. It has also increased the number of widows.

Despite the shortage of funding, the ministry has been able to carry out some projects, such as supporting women's groups and offering micro-finance schemes to allow women to start up businesses that will support their families. There are also projects to tackle female illiteracy and provide health services, including sending mobile medical centres to remote rural areas.

NGOs working on women’s issues are calling for it to be made a proper ministry with a larger budget and staff.

Jenan Mubarak, director of the Iraqi Centre for Women's Rehabilitation and Employment, said coordination with the ministry is often difficult because of the lack of resources.

"We need an active governmental institution, support and open-mindedness," she said.

Zaineb Naji is a Baghdad-based IWPR contributor.

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