FOB KALSU (May 7, 2008) — Representatives from four local women’s committees in the Rasheed Nahia met in Mahmudiyah, 20 miles south of Baghdad, May 5.
Among those attending the gathering were Soldiers of Multi-National Division – Center and the U.S. State Department’s embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team Baghdad-7, who helped organize the committees.
Women’s issues are nothing new to the Government of Iraq, and now, after years of turmoil and the rebuilding of the nation’s institutions, the committees have provided many women a support channel, said Capt. Trista Mustaine, ePRT women’s assistance group leader.
“It’s trying to build connectivity that’s been severed,” she said.
A key goal for the meeting was to introduce committee members to one another, as well as link them to their representatives in the nahia and other organizations. Representatives of the Iraqi Ministy of Labor and Social Affairs and the Red Crescent attended the meeting.
Mustaine, from Bradenton, Fla., said getting women involved in government and giving them better economic opportunities fosters stabilization and a return to normalcy.
One of the ways ePRT achieves this is with microgrants, up to $2,500 per person, to help women start businesses. Those businesses include anything from internet cafes to agriculture, but sewing cooperatives have been the most popular. These co-ops provide major employment opportunities in their neighborhoods, giving women the means to buy materials and sell their goods collectively. Sewing co-ops, in turn, provide revenue for the women’s committees, Mustaine said.
Chairwomen from the four committees addressed several issues at the meeting, but the foremost topics included the need for grass-roots level assistance from Coalition forces and the needs of widows and orphans.
Zaytoon Hussain Mraad, from Adwaniyah, showed a placard with pictures of more than 30 children in her village orphaned by recent violence. Fifteen of the children, all from Shiite families in Sunni majority region, lost both parents to criminal activity and sectarian violence.
Aieda Hassan Aziz, chairman of the Busayefi women’s committee, said her husband was kidnapped months ago and she doesn’t know where he is. Insurgents also stole her livestock, depriving her of an income. There are 62 widows in her town and even more orphans, she said.
Education, she said, was what citizens in her village need most.
The chairwoman from the Hawr Rajab women’s committee, Manal Najeeb Mahmood, offered some words of strength and hope.“Al-Qaeda in Iraq killed, kidnapped and destroyed. We stood strong with the help of Coalition forces, Iraqi Army and the local councils. We’re here to stay,” she said.
Mahmood said that profits from her women’s committee’s sewing co-op would go to help the 215 widows and numerous orphans of her town.
Doctor Maha al-Hadithy, a Red Crescent representative, said assistance from Coalition forces was welcomed, but much more could be done on the local level. In the beginning, money spent on programs at the national level failed to reach them, she said. Another big issue, al-Hadithy said, was the rise in divorces among religiously- mixed couples in her country. Sectarian strife has torn families apart, and legal assistance may help put them back together again.
Al-Hadithy struck a positive tone in her remarks, however, saying that women’s committees have nothing to do with religion or tribal loyalties. Only the improved lives of Iraq’s women matter, she said.
Mustaine was pleased to see representatives come together, belonging to committees she and others helped form. “I think it’s definitely been a success,” she said. “The most productive stuff has nothing to do with the money we’ve spent. It’s primarily relationship building. That’s key, because that’s the only thing that’s going to be sustaining after we leave.”