Iraqi women in eastern Baghdad Iraqi women in eastern Baghdad Photo credit: DVIDSHUB (via flickr)
Supporting women in a difficult security environment: the ICRC’s programmes for women-headed households in Iraq
by Caroline Douilliez-Sabouba, ICRC Iraq September 2011

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) delegation in Iraq created a ‘Women and War’ advisor position in 2008, responsible for assessing and integrating women’s needs into ICRC programmes. Although no confirmed figures exist, there are estimates of over a million women-headed households (WHHs) in Iraq. Despite limitations on access imposed by insecurity, it was possible to meet Iraqi women from all walks of life in Jordan and in more secure areas in Iraq, to discuss the problems affecting them. Based on these initial consultations and working with contacts provided by local NGOs, the ICRC organised a field survey in partnership with an Iraqi NGO in Baghdad. Although the survey was limited in scope (30 structured questionnaires in one neighbourhood), the results confirmed the serious difficulties WHHs were facing.+ICRC, Situation of Women Headed Households in Bagdad, 2008.

Women’s specific needs

Iraq is a patriarchal society, which can make life difficult for women without a man. A woman is expected to take care of her family inside the home, while her husband earns a living and upholds his family reputation. A woman without a husband lacks economic, physical and social protection. She often has little or no professional experience, and faces a job market where opportunities are scarce and more favourable to men. Her close family often cannot help, as they are themselves in dire economic circumstances. She is without a regular income and struggles to pay for rent, food, clothing, medicine and education for her children. She depends on a network of charity but cannot cope with daily expenses. As a result she cuts down on essential spending, like health or education, and many send their young sons out to work. The survey also highlighted two additional points: women are overwhelmingly willing to work, especially in home-based activities, and only a tiny number have access to social support from the state, despite being entitled to it.

The ICRC’s response

Although distributions for displaced people were being scaled down, the ICRC decided to maintain them for displaced WHHs. In 2009-2010, the ICRC assisted around 4,000 displaced WHHs with food parcels and personal hygiene kits in Baghdad, Dyala and Ninewa governorates.

The Economic Security department also initiated micro grants for women in Najaf, and later in Basra, Missan and Baghdad. Women have become involved in a wide range of mainly home-based activities, including mini-markets, small-scale trading, food production, tailoring, tutoringand beauty salons. These enterprises have been more successful than expected: monitoring data suggests that women who have the skills and motivation can increase their income by 50% to 100%. Beyond the additional income, paid employment brings a sense of achievement and dignity and renewed hope in the future.

 Advocating for state support

Despite the success of the programme, micro-grants are not a panacea for the problems facing WHHs. The state welfare system also has an important role to play. The ICRC recruited a female Field Officer in Baghdad to collect more information on why social benefits are so difficult to obtain for women without breadwinners. Two others were subsequently recruited in Anbar and Basra. The Iraqi social system provides a monthly allowance for women with no means of support of up to 175,000 IQD ($170) depending on the number of children. Since 2003, access to this allowance has been limited because of limited capacity within the administration. Despite commendable efforts to improve the system in recent years, many women still cannot register, or wait for months to get their payments. Many no longer trust the system.

It is very costly and time-consuming to obtain the documentation necessary to apply for benefits. Many women cannot afford to invest in the process, especially if there is no guarantee that their applications will be successful. In 2009, the ICRC launched a protection project to support and motivate women to apply for the welfare allowance. The ICRC provides reimbursement of $150-200, which covers the cost of travel to gather documents and other related expenses. It works in partnership with local NGOs that advise beneficiaries on the process. The ICRC also monitors how the administrative system functions and identifies bottlenecks. This information is discussed at central level with the administration at regular meetings. The project has helped to identify the need for higher-level advocacy in order to address structural shortcomings, one of which is the multiplicity of actors involved in the welfare allowance system: parliamentarians vote on the social affairs budget; the Ministry of Social Affairs decides which proportion goes to WHHs; the Directorate of Women registers beneficiaries; and the governorates (provincial councils) release the payments. The lack of coordination between actors involved and the lack of an overall budget dedicated to WHHs are serious impedimentsto efforts to meet the needs of these households. The ICRC uses high-level meetings with interlocutors in Iraq to raise these problems, and organised a national conference in Juneto discuss the issue with key stakeholders.

ICRC programmes for women in Iraq have been developed step by step, with a needs-based approach and in a cross-cutting manner, involving various departments together with the Women and War advisor within the ICRC delegation. Programme expansion has closely followed improvements in the security situation.

A chronic vulnerability

With increasing access to the field, in the second half of 2010 the ICRC decided to update its knowledge of the situation of WHHs. A new survey was carried out covering five governorates still directly affected by the conflict, Anbar, Baghdad, Dyala, Kirkuk and Mosul. Directly implemented by ICRC expatriate and national staff, more than 100 in-depth interviews with WHHs were conducted; discussions were also held with community leaders. The results confirmed the extreme vulnerability of these women, the continuing relevance of ongoing projects and the need to increase support to the most vulnerable. Close to 80% are living in poor to very poor conditions, many in houses without insulation or basic furniture. Among them, 10% illegally occupy public premises like schools or abandoned administrative buildings and live with the constant threat of eviction. They struggle to pay for basic items. Food accounts for one-third of total expenditure, even though these women purchase only half of what they eat (the government Public Distribution System (PDS) and donations from charity and relatives provide the rest). Rent is another 20% of expenditure, and basic services (fuel, gas, electricity) 10%. Health is a big expense for more than a third of families where at least one member faces chronic problems. Thirty percent have no stable source of income and rely on support from relatives, charity, alms (zakaat), gifts and the PDS. A quarter receive no financial support from relatives.

Community leaders interviewed said that WHHs are seen as a priority for support, but admit that they are a burden for their relatives and need to become more independent.  They agree that years of violence and economic difficulties have eased the traditional reluctance to let women work. Survey findings confirm this: 50% of women interviewed were working at the time of the survey. The majority started working after losing their husbands. Most were engaged in trading (small shops, selling food or non-food items) or small-scale service provision (baking bread, cleaning, sewing, metal collecting, shelling nuts). A fifth (22%) are daily labourers on farms, where they are paid substantially less than men for the same work. Women usually have low-skilled, poorly paid jobs, but women who set up their own businesses make almost 30% more money than those on daily wages. Only 10% felt that it was culturally unacceptable for them to work. Only 19% received regularstate support through a pension or welfare allowance.

Most worryingly, working or not working, supported or not supported, two-thirds spend more than they earn as their income is not sufficient to cover their basic needs. The result is that most of the WHHs interviewed use undesirable coping mechanisms to meet their expenses. Close to 70% are in debt with relatives or shops, to the tune, on average, of 900,000 IQD ($900). Some women sell their assets, furniture or livestock. Many families try to reduce expenditure by limiting spending on health or education. Fifty percent of children do not attend school because they cannot afford transportation costs and stationery items. Forty percent of families send at least one son (under the age of 16) to work outside the home for low daily wages. When asked about their future, an overwhelming 70% hoped for regular longterm financial support from the state.

Following this latest evaluation, the ICRC is working on a six-month cash assistance programme in governorates still affected by the conflict, on the condition that families complete their registration with the Iraqi social system. This cash will provide immediate assistance to families who are unable to make ends meet until the social system takes over. It will motivate families who have lost trust in the system to register, and will give them the financial means to do so. It combines an economic security and protection approach and integrates input from the existing welfare allowance project.

Making sure that women’s needs are assessed is clearly important. Gender analysis (analysing the different roles and needs of women, men, boys and girls), an institutional requirement for all ICRC programmes, can help with this. In many contexts, women are less visible and humanitarian actors must make a special effort to ensure that they are heard. Although there are challenges to accessing women in such contexts, female local and expatriate staff can help to overcome these. The Iraqi context is particularly challenging because of the very high levels of insecurity in certain areas. With limited access to many parts of the country, it was difficult for ICRC and others to assess needs generally, let alone the needs of women.

In 2008, the ICRC delegation in Iraq requested dedicated resources to focus on the specific needs of women. The ICRC chose a step-by-step approach, involving regular assessments to ensure that projects really did meet needs, and expanding into new geographical areas as security and access improved. Integrating support for WHHs into existing ICRC projects and encouraging synergies between them also contributed to the success of the programme. Today, ICRC projects for WHHs include direct assistance, support for economic self-sufficiency and access to services, as well as advocacy/persuasion activities with the authorities. They are all based on needs as expressed by women themselves. Where possible, these programmes are implemented in cooperation with local NGOs working on supporting women-headed households.  Through this partnership, Iraqi women themselves are active in humanitarian activities, and are not simply victims or beneficiaries.

Caroline Douilliez-Sabouba is Head of Project, Women & War, ICRC Iraq.

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