Three sewing machines in a dingy apartment were all Munna Abdul Adeem Ahmed could scrape together when she set up a tailoring co-op for poor widows. She soon realised it was not enough.
More than 1,000 women from the northern city of Mosul turned up looking for work on the first day. Ahmed finally stopped registering new names after the 1,200th widow signed up.
The women were mostly young, poor and desperate for work. Many lost their spouses during the wars, uprisings and civil conflict that have bedevilled Iraq over the past 25 years.
Now, a raging insurgency is adding to their numbers.
Behind the daily bloodshed and attacks that make headlines across the world, there is a growing population of widows.
Traditionally, Iraqi widows have been supported by their late husband’s family or other relatives, but in a country brought to its knees by violence and war, there is now little to spare for the most vulnerable members of society.
“We don’t have enough money to clothe our children,” said Nawal Ayob, who lost her husband during the bombings in the first Gulf War in 1991 and has since joined Ahmed’s co-op. “We have no salaries, no support. How can we survive?”
There are few reliable statistics on the number of widows, but the Ministry of Women’s Affairs has recorded at least 206,000 in Iraq, outside of Kurdish provinces. There are just over half as many widowed men.
Women’s groups, however, say anecdotal evidence suggests the number of widows is far higher, with some estimates putting the number in Baghdad alone at 250,000 out of a population of about 7 million.
“In every house in Iraq, you will find at least one widow,” said Azhaar al-Hakim, member of the Women’s Alliance for a Democratic Iraq, an activist group. “In some houses, there may be two or three.”
JUST A JOB
For many widows, life is blighted by grinding poverty. Finding a job in post-war Iraq is hard enough for the average male — securing one as a widow in an increasingly Islamic society is almost always an uphill climb.
The insurgency and almost daily bombings in and around Baghdad have hindered economic rebuilding since the U.S. invasion in 2003.
Some widows take up menial jobs they once would not have even considered, Hakim said, recalling one widow she met in the holy city of Kerbala who worked as a maid despite holding a college degree. Others have been forced to sell off possessions or live off handouts from relatives, say womens’ groups.
“The main problem widows face is poverty,” said Buthaina al-Suheil, head of the Iraqi Family Organisation which helps support 200 widows in Baghdad. “We have women whose children left school to earn a living to support their mother.”
When Suad Hussein Musshada’s only source of income dried up with the death of her husband, she moved out of her house to live with her father and sent her son to an uncle.
Six years later, the 40-year-old widow, who also signed up for Ahmed’s co-op, is still looking for employment.
“I’m suffering,” she said. “I just want to find a job.”
Widows and aid groups say their plight is made worse by the government’s indifference.
During Saddam Hussein’s rule, widows of men killed in battle — particularly during the 8-year Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s — were often compensated by the government, sometimes given land and free education for their children.
But this compensation began to dry up after foreign sanctions in the 1990s left Iraq financially strapped.
Now, rampant corruption and Iraq’s general chaos have pushed widows’ concerns to the back burner, women’s groups say.
Ahmed, the co-op organiser, said she and others had travelled to the Mosul governor’s office seeking money for cloth and a building to replace the tiny apartment her seamstresses toil in. But their requests were not granted.
Ahmed, whose husband was disabled during Iraq’s conflict with Kurdish rebels in the 1970s, also complained about the lack of governmental support at a meeting of local women ahead of December elections.
The influential head of the local women’s centre sympathised but could only offer some blunt advice: “You just have to learn to become self-sufficient.”
(Additional reporting by Hiba Moussa in Baghdad)