Iraq: Women's rights in Iraq compromised

The Middle East Times
Women's rights in Iraq have taken a back seat as far as officials and politicians are concerned.
The Iraqi government has so far failed to give the moral and financial support the women's affairs ministry needs to make real changes regarding the status of women in the war-torn country.
It has been two years since the July 2004 formation of the ministry of state for women's affairs under former interim prime minister Ayad Allawi, and the government continues to sidetrack women's issues, women's advocates say.

Politicians have also failed to deliver on the pledges they made to promote women's rights in their election campaigns, they add.

The Iraqi government is not giving the moral and financial support the women's affairs ministry needs to make real changes regarding women's status in Iraq, observers note.

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 continued 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 a month to carry out its programs, whereas other ministries have budgets running into hundreds of millions of dollars.

The $2,000 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 through 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 that the women's affairs office functions like a nongovernmental organization, NGO, because it depends more on international donors than on the cabinet.

The ministry has received grants from organizations such as the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), over the past two years.

This year has been particularly tough for women's activists, as the issue of female political power and representation were compromised as efforts were focused on bringing Iraq's main religious and ethnic groups into 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 that 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 - upgraded to full ministerial rank.

Many female members of the National Assembly support the plan. The Iraqi 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 the 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 centers 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 Center for Women's Rehabilitation and Employment, said that 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.

July 13, 2006