The onset of the pandemic and lockdowns presented even greater obstacles to Iraqi women’s rights to education and personal resources. Families were relegated to their homes, without connections to their peers and the world beyond.
In March 2020, when it seemed programming in Iraq would be put on hold, our Iraq staff put their heads together and turned this obstacle into an opportunity. They established phone trees to contact each and every participant to ensure she and her family had the latest updates and access to necessary health resources. After leaning into technology as a means to connect, this year, our Iraq team will make technology a priority.
As a long-term response to issues presented by coronavirus, our Iraq office has begun to build a digital solution to provide violence prevention and support services to women in their homes. Because the pandemic has limited these services and confined many families to their homes, women are unable to return to the program in person as our Iraq offices reopen. This year, our staff in Iraq will keep delivering online trainings while we bring smaller groups of women together for socially distant vocational trainings that can’t be delivered online.
Currently, our program in Iraq has 1,997 women enrolled in their trainings. 944 women will graduate from the Stronger Women, Stronger Nations program at the end of March and the remaining 1,053 participants will graduate at the end of 2021. Following graduation in March, the Iraq country office aims to enroll a new class of 1,300, of which they have already enrolled 700.
In addition to digital outreach, our Iraq team is collaborating with institutional partners on the revitalization of its men’s engagement. In January, 50 men were trained in women’s rights advocacy and anti-GBV actions. An additional 550 men will be trained on the same topics by June 2021.
Since 2003, Women for Women International–Iraq has served over 16,000 women in Iraq in Baghdad, Karbala, Erbil, Sulaymaniyah, and Shekhan. The program has reached populations of Iraqi women, displaced Yezidi peoples, and Kurdish women. Over the last three years of intensive work in KRI, our Iraq staff have gained critical knowledge of conflict situations and the needs of those affected by them.
This year, our Iraq team is working with the George Washington Institute to collect research around program capacity and to ensure provided psychosocial and GBV resources are tailored to the women in the program. Institutional support is a vital part of our Iraq office’s plans for the future, but individual donors are invaluable because they not only support the program, they weave a crucial network of support around the world and establish one-to-one relationships with staff and participants. Our Iraq office remains a small influence in the global NGO space, but Aram Shakerm, the Director of Women for Women International–Iraq, has high hopes for its future as a leader of change.
Conflict and its aftermath continue to sweep across Iraq and women will always be most affected. The work of our Iraq staff will grow to be even more critical as Iraq rebuilds from political and social turmoil. Our Iraq staff have integrated social and economic empowerment training to provide a more intersectional and accessible curriculum to participants. To supplement these changes, community awareness-raising efforts have been bolstered through local networking and partnerships with civil society organizations (CSOs). An expanded network presents opportunities for greater reach into more marginalized populations and more remote communities of women where need is high. Consequently, a broader participant audience means a more diverse range of vocational tracks and a wider horizon for participants after graduation.
In 2021, the Iraq staff plans on beginning a geographical expansion into federal Iraq, starting with Ninawa Plains/Sinjar. In recent year, our team has worked in semi-urban areas like Erbil and Sulaymaniyah where populations affected by conflict were relatively small and vocational training was limited by urban demand to primarily sewing and hairdressing.
In the coming years, the Iraq staff intends to reach more marginalized subgroups of women in more rural areas who are disproportionally affected by conflict. To create programs that are contoured to the lives and experiences of a refugee population, our Iraq research staff will invest in monitoring and evaluation to improve data quality and integrity in the future to come. Additionally, our Iraq staff will build country office capacity in conducting low-cost, high-quality situational analysis to inform their communication materials and advocacy work. This will be coupled with building partnerships with Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) and like-minded organizations to generate evidence and advocate for women’s rights and priorities.
Dreams for the Future
According to UNHCR, there are still nearly 1.5 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq who are either unable or not willing to return to their areas of origin.
Iraq is in the throes of its third post-conflict recovery period in 15 years. Following years of conflict, begun by the US-led war in the country in 2003, it has seen foreign invasion, civil conflict and most recently the war against the Islamic State and the Levant (ISIL).
Since 2017, our Iraq program has supported over 2,000 women Syrian refugees in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) as well as nearly 800 men refugees. Through a partnership with Free Yezidi Foundation (FYF), our Iraq team was able to deliver programming quickly and effectively to women in the greatest need.
At the beginning of 2021, our Iraq program had enrolled 340 women in a refugee camp in northern Iraq on the border it shares with Syria. Staff are working tirelessly to expand the scope of our Iraq staff’s work in refugee camps to provide resources for a growing population. Funding for work with refugees continues to languish as millions of people are displaced every year by war and conflict. In partnership with UNHCR, the Iraq office will maintain its programming for refugees this year and hopefully develop further. This partnership alleviates a lot of funding responsibilities from our staff in refugee camps, so the money usually used for office rent and supplies to go directly back to the participants.
COVID-19 dealt a heavy blow to our staff and the participants of our Iraq program. In the coming year, solidarity among staff, participants, and supporters will be the thread that binds the program together. A brighter future for our world is coming, and our Iraq country office has a plan to reach that future.
Aram has expressed his excitement to build a robust supporter network and to create relationships with other NGOs and governments to provide up-to-date and valuable resources to the women in the program. As the COVID-19 case rate in Iraq wanes, the staff are cautious as they reopen and start the charge into 2021 with renewed hope for the future of the program and the women they serve.
A Three-Year Plan
The Women for Women International–Iraq team has named a series of goals for the coming years, beginning in 2021:
- By the end of 2023, the program will have graduated 5,250 women from the Stronger Women, Stronger Nations program.
- The Iraq country office will establish a robust and wide network of local and global NGOs and supporters.
- By the end of 2023, 1,800 men will be reached through our Iraq office as allies.
- The program will focus heavily on reaching women who have lived under ISIL control or been impacted by conflict in Iraq and Syria, including women returning to their homes in Iraq and women in host communities in both federal Iraq and KRI.
Our Iraq team and program are entering a year of innovation and new enrollment following a period of response and precaution. Thanks to support from around the world, our Iraq team can continue to build the program around new communities of women.
There is much more to be done, more women to be reached, more change to be made to our world, and women in Iraq are coming together, against all odds, to make their dream for a more peaceful planet a reality.
“I’m personally positive that we can make a big change,” Aram says of the programming plans for the new year.