On a recent visit to Baghdad, Zainab reflects on the struggles and challenges faced by women in today's Iraq
Where are Iraqi women today?
As I sat beside the Tigris River in Baghdad on a hot July evening, the air is still, the dust has settled, and the call for prayers is echoing over the river as it reflects lights from relatively new restaurants. I visited my mother's grave yesterday and learned that her tombstone was destroyed by a missile 2 years ago in one of the clashes between the militias and the US troops. "Not even the dead are spared from the bombings in Iraq," I thought to myself. But at least my mother is not witnessing the pain many Iraqi women are witnessing as they try to find space for themselves in the "new Iraq."
Today in Iraq, women have no one unified reality. At the same time as many women increase participation in the political sector-Iraq's Parliament and local councils are required to have 25% women representation-thousands more are experiencing brutal hardship and extreme poverty. There are now more destitute women in Iraq than ever before-estimates of the number of war widows range from one to three million. These and other socially and economically marginalized women are vulnerable and at high risk of trafficking, organized and forced prostitution, polygamy, domestic violence, and being recruited as suicide bombers, something that the society is still trying to process and understand. In a single day's journey around Baghdad, one can see all these many and conflicting realities of Iraqi women-that was my day today.
I arrive at Women for Women International's office, I see a woman in her fifties waiting for me to interview her for a job at Women for Women International. She had been a social worker for 25 years, worked in Sadr City throughout most of her professional career and is passionate and loving about the people in Sadr city, never questioning the fact that she is a "Sunni" woman working in a "Shia" neighborhood. She tells me, "That was the old Iraq. We worked, drove, traveled, went to universities, to parties, no one questioned us. Today, I find it hard to get my spirit back. I saw too many dead bodies and too much suffering. It was worse than the war with Iran, worse than the first Gulf War, worse even than the last Gulf War is our own civil war. That's when I stopped leaving my home. I don't know how to make sense of things anymore," she explains with a sigh.
Leaving the office, I met a friend for lunch. She is an activist for whom I have deep respect; she has never left Iraq, has survived and persevered through all of the challenges. She continues her activism and her work to sustain and support the voices of women, but today I see she is giving up. "It's not only the bombing." she explains. "It's not only the lack of electricity. All of these things we got used to. It is much more about the corruption you see in the country, the lack of vision, of leadership, of something to hold us to each other, to the country. I am witnessing a country where the corruption is eating it alive and is giving a chance to militias to destroy it even further. I think I have hit my limit." I can hear the defeat in her voice; so few of the older, educated, middle class women are holding on-I have the deepest respect for the integrity and the dedication of those who do.
My friend's daughters were listening to our conversation at lunch. Eagerly, they peppered me with questions intended to confirm their mother's stories of a less conservative time where women moved freely in the public sphere: "Did you really drive to college? Is it true that most women did not wear a headscarf? Is it true that most girls did not get married until they graduated from college? Is it true that most women were working?"
It broke my heart to hear their questions, for I realized that there is a whole generation of women and men who don't even remember that this era of freedom and stability ever existed. My friend's daughters are part of the privileged class. They are going to university and not questioning their rights to do so. But there are many girls their age from different sectors of society who are not even going to school, and hence are growing up illiterate.
I leave my lunch to visit one of the participants in Women for Women International's program, one of the millions of widows in Iraq. Her husband was killed on a Friday afternoon as she was preparing lunch in the kitchen.
He was playing with their sons. They heard an explosion outside. When they ran out to see what happened, a missile landed on him, killing him instantly and injuring all four sons. "My life was changed in a second from a happily married woman to a widow, a poor woman, with no support whatsoever," she explains. I asked her if anybody besides Women for Women International is helping her, and I was surprised by her answer: "Poverty has changed much of our culture," she says. "My in-laws told me they are too poor to help me and my four sons. My own parents told me the exact same thing. So I had no hope but to manage on my own. I taught myself basic nursing techniques to save money on my kids' medical needs after each surgery they had to undergo to correct damage caused by the explosion. I sold all that I had to open a mini store in front of the house where my kids and I work so we can earn some living. With Women for Women's help I now have a job as a candle maker."
I finally decide to return home. As with every drive, there are tens of check points where the soldiers are holding a machine to check if the car has a bomb or not. You are also not supposed to use your cell phone when passing the check point-a rule that I forgot and was quickly reminded of by the inspecting soldiers. They asked me to get out of the car and go to the women's check point to be checked. I walked calmly to one room by the side road where there is a woman sitting inside, waiting to body search women sent by the soldiers outside. I try to start a light-hearted conversation: "Why bother to search women; it is the men in this country who are causing all the trouble." I say this with a light tone, only to be surprised and informed of another reality of Iraqi women: "No sister," she tells me with a sad face. "Many women are suicide bombers these days. Just the other day, two women exploded themselves in front of the mosque, on two separate occasions. I still don't know what to make out of these women," she says. I don't either. I leave the check point with a teary eye at the pain of the country and what it is witnessing from its men and women. Another sandstorm makes its way through the city one more time. I can see it in the distance, taking over the green that once surrounded the city, trees and flowers.
Another kind of sandstorm seems to be overtaking the pained hearts of Iraqi women, blocking out the sun over the entire country. I better go inside-maybe tomorrow will be a better day. Maybe women will once again have the strength to keep themselves, their families and their nation going. They are in need of a new reality. The world must support them. We must stand strong with our Iraqi sisters.Close
Lisa Shannon, founder of Run for Congo Women, spoke to Oprah about how Women for Women International changed her life and the lives of thousands of women
Women for Women International was featured on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" on Thursday, October 1, 2009. The show focused on how a movement of women are changing the world. Women for Women International and our work in the Democratic Republic of the Congo was a focal point.
Today in the Democratic Republic of the Congo people are still struggling after one of the deadliest wars in all history. Millions died and new conflicts threaten peace every day. But because of your help, there is hope.
Sponsor and supporter Lisa Shannon, founder of the Run for Congo Women, spoke with Oprah and about her involvement with Women for Women International and how it has changed her life and the lives of thousands of women survivors of war.
Oprah, inspired by New York Times best-selling book Half the Sky by Pulitzer Prize winners Nicholas Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn delivered a call to action to women.
In conjunction with the show, Oprah launched a new registry online on her website, where Women for Women International was featured. In a matter of 48 hours, thousands of new supporters were added to the organization.Close
Zainab Salbi discusses "Investing in Girls and Women" with a panel of global business and political leaders.
Former President Bill Clinton started CGI as a non-partisan catalyst for action. Global and local community leaders come together to devise and implement innovative solutions to some of the world's most pressing challenges. CGI members have made more than 1,400 commitments valued at $46 billion, which have already improved more than 200 million lives in 150 countries.
Women for Women International founder Zainab Salbi participated in a panel discussion titled "Investing in Girls and Women," about public-private partnerships between nonprofits, businesses and the public sector can elevate the status of women and girls and improve a country's overall economic and political stability, helping to building peaceful societies. On the panel Zainab made the point that it's that funds are badly spent by NGOs on women and girls but that only 1% of funding given to developing countries is given to women.
The panel, moderated by Diane Sawyer, featured a wide range of policy and decision leaders like Lloyd C. Blankfein, Chairman and CEO, the Goldman Sachs Group, Inc.; Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Managing Director, the World Bank Group; Rex Tillerson, Chairman and CEO, ExxonMobil; and Melanne Ververr, Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues, Office of the Secretary, US Department of State.Close
This holiday season, Women for Women International is celebrating a new exclusive two-year partnership with kate spade new york, the fashion and home accessories designer. The partnership is born from both organizations' commitment to celebrating creativity, independence and individuality among women. The kate spade new york partnership will bring income to hundreds of Women for Women International program graduates who will create locally-inspired, fashionable products for kate spade new york's accessories line.
Women for Women International strives to help women sustain an income by providing them with vocational skills, business training, and access to markets. In Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), a war-ravaged economy with a more than 50 percent unemployment rate has left women struggling to earn money. With the global financial crisis further weakening the already failing Bosnian economy, the employment opportunity offered by kate spade new york is needed now more than ever.
kate spade new york began working with Women for Women International - BiH in 2005, employing a small group of program graduates to knit winter accessories. Knitting is a traditional skill in BiH that is passed from mothers to daughters. With additional training provided by Women for Women International and creative direction from kate spade new york, the Bosnian women were able to transform their traditional handcrafts into high-fashion winter accessories.
This year, the kate spade new york partnership has grown to include nearly 250 women from communities throughout BiH who will be employed knitting hats, mittens, scarves, and dog sweaters for kate spade new york's Holiday 2009 line.In July, the Co-Presidents of kate spade new york, Deborah Lloyd and Craig Leavitt, visited the BiH office to meet with the program graduates they employ. The women greeted the guests with so much enthusiasm that the kate spade new york staff got to see, firsthand, the impact the partnership is having on the women's lives.
The stories set forth below are just a few examples of how the women participating in the program are now earning incomes thanks to the emotional and financial support of their sponsors and to the jobs kate spade new york was able to offer.
Success Stories from Bosnia
Fata lives in a concrete home on a mountaintop in Konjic, a scenic town with rolling mountains and a winding river. Her home's high, isolated position made it a target for gunfire and bombings during the war. When her home was under attack, she sought refuge in the town's valley, sharing one room with her family and another family. After the war, she received a donation to rebuild her destroyed house. She returned to live on the mountaintop and joined Women for Women International.
Fata has been knitting for kate spade new york since the beginning of the partnership, and has to walk five miles up and down the mountainside to collect yarn and deliver her finished goods in the town's center. In addition to the income she earns through the kate spade new york partnership, Fata also has a small cow and sells milk and vegetables from her garden to support her family.
Expert knitter Begzada outside of her home In Bosnia and Herzegovina.
When Women for Women International-BiH receives a new design from kate spade new york, our BiH office turns to Begzada to create the first sample. Begzada is a skilled knitter, who like many other Bosnian women, earns supplemental income through the kate spade new york partnership by knitting at home in her free time. She lives in a concrete house on the outskirts of Sarajevo that she literally built with her own hands.
She is originally from Srebenica, a region that suffered one of the worst massacres of the 1992-1995 war. While fleeing from the massacre with her children, Begzada was separated from her husband and never saw him again. For the past 14 years, she lived without knowing if he was alive or dead. Just this past year, his remains were discovered in two mass graves and laid to rest in a special Srebenica memorial on July 11, 2009.
Begzada's story is both a testament to her strength and a reminder that the emotional wounds of war in BiH have yet to heal. "I continue to live for my children," she said. "I like to knit to occupy my mind."
As Women for Women International's partnership with kate spade new york grows, Begzada will continue to be the go-to knitter our office consults with for new designs and fresh ideas.
Bosnian program participant Rabija and her granddaughter.
Rabija's home is adorned with the beautiful items she hand-knits and crochets. Her husband passed away before the war in 1992, leaving her with two children. She was lucky enough to escape the violence by fleeing to Austria with her brother and children. When she returned to BiH, she found her home had been destroyed by a grenade.
She reconstructed her house, and now lives with her son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter. She earns income through knitting in the kate spade new york partnership. She said of her participation in last year's kate spade new york project, "I earned nearly as much money knitting at home in my spare time as my son who works full time in a factory."
For this year's project, women like Rabija, Fata, and Begzada have received additional training in the commercial aspects of fashion and handcraft production through a grant donated by the Joyce Fund. With their new skills and business savvy, women knitters employed by kate spade new york will be able to transition from artisans to entrepreneurs. In BiH, a place where the wounds of the war are still fresh, Women for Women International program graduates are forging a place for themselves and creating economically stable lives with the help of a great partner-kate spade new york.Learn More about the Partnership & Purchase Products