Iraq: Don't Forget Displaced Women

By Dawn Calabia

As a humanitarian talking with displaced Iraqis be prepared for a lot of anger.  “You destroyed my country,” said one woman. “Those ruling have no place for us. What will you do?” Millions of people have been displaced inside and outside the country. Small numbers have returned home. For others, insecurity, plus the absence of the rule of law, infrastructure, employment prospects, or basic services like water, sanitation, education or health care prevent them from returning home. Individuals or members of groups targeted for religion, ethnicity or politics are unlikely to return. These families, often headed by women, live in extremely poor, overcrowded conditions, subject to extreme heat and cold. Many are skeptical Iraq will invest the political and financial resources needed for safe sustainable returns. 

In Erbil, a displaced woman living in a tent wanted the world to understand. “We need security in Iraq…tell the politicians to make an agreement.  Poor people are the victims of the struggle. Kurd, Arab, Sunni, Shia, Christian, we are all one people, Iraqis, and we need a secure country! Ask our government, the Government of Iraq and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) to pay attention to our needs, to see how we are living and suffering.”

Unlike last year, Iraq has not contributed to the UN or neighboring countries aiding its citizens. The KRG complained of receiving insufficient funds to pay grants to people registered as internally displaced and insufficient medicines for those with chronic illnesses.  But displaced people inside Northern Iraq are grateful to the KRG.

“My son was shot by terrorists. We did not trust the Mosul hospital, so by taxi we came to Erbil. My husband died, but we are safe. My son works every day at anything for our rent. He doesn’t know I work, even though I have heart trouble.  I cry sometimes… because of the war I lost my husband, my daughter, my home, my life.  If the government would give us a piece of land or a house, or compensate us for our lost Mosul house, it would solve half of our problem.” She is now approaching all the political parties in the KRG to register for government housing. “I have heard nothing, but will keep trying.”

She is one of some 20% of internally displaced people who the International Organization for Migration estimates are widows or female heads of households. We spoke with another widow with seven children who dreamed of receiving skills training so she could open a shop where all her family could work. Then, she could afford an apartment and dowries for her girls. “We depend on charity, but we are willing to work, to be useful.” Unfortunately there is little funding for such services or even basic assistance. 

In Syria younger refugee women said they had lost chances of marriage. Some lacked dowries and family connections; some were now needed to support their families.  A few are split off from family members who were resettled into western countries. They are struggling and are often suspected of being “loose women” since they live alone. Like others they hope to be resettled in another country despite the limited numbers of people accepted for resettlement. 

“Tell the embassies to open the doors, we want to work, we want a future,” One woman said to us.

“Don’t forget us.” 

We cannot.