Friday, November 25, 2011

After Nearly 9 Years of War, Too Many Widows


November 24, 2011

After Nearly 9 Years of War, Too Many Widows


BAGHDAD — Noria Khalaf giggled and then, embarrassed, covered her smile with a fold of her black robes. Yes, she said, she would like to marry again. It had been four years since her husband died, and her children needed a father.

Finding a good man in Baghdad these days is a challenge. Not only is nearly every trailer in this dusty government-run camp on the capital’s outskirts occupied by war widows like her, with nary a man in sight, but across Iraq women now outnumber men.

Some widows ask their brothers to bring friends by the camp, one of two packed trailer camps for widows in Baghdad. But that is not often successful.

The problem is that widows do not make appealing brides, say the women themselves and nongovernmental organizations that assist them.

“Maybe a young woman with only one or two kids can marry again,” Ms. Khalaf said with a sigh; she has six children.

Widows are not a new social problem in Iraq, of course. The war with Iran in the 1980s left tens of thousands of women widowed. Each new calamity that followed created more: the 1991 war with the United States, the failed Shiite uprising that followed, the repressions against Kurds.

And the numbers of widows in Iraq, or as American aid programs prefer to call them, “female heads of households,” increased substantially after the invasion in 2003 and in the years of violence that followed.

The Iraqi Ministry of Planning estimates that about 9 percent of the country’s women, or about 900,000, are widows. A separate government agency, the Ministry of Women, issued a statement in June putting the figure at one million.

Other groups also have estimated the number of women widowed during the nearly nine-year war, which is drawing to an official close with the last American soldiers scheduled to leave in December.

A United Nations report estimated that at the peak of the sectarian violence in 2006, nearly 100 women were widowed each day. The Ministry of Social Affairs pays widow’s benefits to 86,000 women, most of whom, it says, lost their husbands in the latest war.

This figure corresponds with conservative estimates of 103,000 to 113,000 Iraqi deaths in the war, according to a nonprofit group that tallies casualties, Iraq Body Count. The count includes the estimated 10,000 Iraqi soldiers who died in the initial American-led invasion and 10,125 police officers and soldiers who died afterward in fighting with insurgents, along with those killed in sectarian violence.

In possibly one of the last such episodes of the war, last weekend, the Iraqi police said American troops shot and killed two civilians after a roadside bomb exploded near a convoy. The American military denied that soldiers had fired on civilians.

Confronted with so many widows, the Iraqi government is providing only minimal assistance, equivalent to about $80 a month to those widowed in the recent conflict.

“We expected we would get a lot of help from all sides, the Americans, the Iraqi government,” Ms. Khalaf, who lost her husband in 2007, said in an interview in her trailer. “But the fact is, nobody really cares about us.”

The rusting trailer camp, across from a car lot, represents a social challenge that is not easily remedied — not least because the gender imbalance makes it exceedingly unlikely most widows will remarry.

Some American-financed projects have sought to help widows become self-sufficient economically, with some success, according to program reports. A United States Agency for International Development program offers small grants to female heads of households, for example. They can use the money to open small businesses like beauty salons or catering services. Program administrators say many recipients not only have improved their lives materially, but have overcome depression.

The program noted ailments among widows, some of whom had witnessed the killings of their husbands, like difficulty concentrating, numbness and heart palpitations. But after the widows started a small business, the program administrators said, they noticed signs of improvement — “more colorful clothing, smiley faces and for some, louder voices as they speak.”

At the trailer camp, American soldiers used to drive by occasionally in their Humvees, to throw candy and soccer balls to the children, a meager help.

At times, war widows became symbols for opponents of the American military presence in Iraq. When an Iraqi journalist threw his shoes at President George W. Bush in 2008, he shouted that he was doing so on behalf of the war’s widows and orphans. Politicians have recruited widows to appear at political rallies. But a half a dozen widows interviewed at the trailer camp said, most of all, they would like to remarry, however unlikely.

In the meantime, Raja Hashim, 32, said she would focus on her children, all sons. “I don’t need a man because I have three men already,” she said.

Yasir Ghazi contributed reporting.

© 2011 The New York Times Company

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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs


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