Women for Women International's Zainab Shakir

Women for Women director Zainab Shakir

At first glance, it’s not entirely obvious how a luxury hotel chain, laundry bags and widows of war all link together. It became clear after I spoke to Zainab Shakir, country director for Women for Women International in Iraq, about the charity’s global programmes in support of women survivors of war…

Sirur became a widow a month after getting married, her husband killed by terrorists. His family believed she had brought bad luck upon them, so they threw her out on the street. Sirur returned to her family’s home, a tiny 70 square metre space shared by her parents and nine sisters in Sadir City, Iraq. Money was tight, and became yet more so when Sirur’s father fell ill and died. “Life became very difficult and complicated,” Sirur says. “I used to sit and cry for the loss of my husband and father.”

Sirur is one of an estimated one million women made widows by years of violence and turmoil in Iraq. According to Zainab Shakir, country director for the charity Women for Women International in Iraq, these women face great adversity attaining skills and education and becoming economically productive.

“Complex traditional, cultural, and social practices and security remain a major obstacle for girls to receive education,” says Shakir, pointing out that illiteracy rates among Iraqi women aged 15 to 24 is about one in four, and that that figure rises to roughly half in rural areas. “And such obstacles become valid reasons for parents to object to girls attending schools and gaining education,” she continues. Parents often encourage their daughters to marry young as a means of support, despite the fact that Iraqi law prohibits marriage under the age of 18.

Lack of basic education has subjected many Iraqi women to a situation of helplessness and poverty. And such disenfranchisement can render women susceptible to more than just economic strife, says Shakir. “Women become even vulnerable to abuse or mistreatment.” It has been reported that one in five women in Iraq are subjected to physical or psychological abuse, “and some even suggest the number is higher.”

When a woman loses her husband, her situation becomes that much worse; her husband is often her only financial lifeline, and after his death, she has no guarantee of support from his family or her own. Women might look to the government for aid, but not all can be helped. The country’s Ministry of Women has a limited ability to effect change, says Shakir; and, despite a 25% quota for women in the Council of Representatives, the issue of improving the lives of women “does not have a strong advocate within the government.”

This is where civil society steps in, says Shakir. Along with other women’s organisations operating in Iraq, Women for Women International is providing support to women like Sirur who have fallen on hard times. With the help of institutional donors and individual “sponsors” – about 50 of whom are based in the UK – the organisation offers women enrolment on a one-year skill-building programme. Participants receive a small stipend for saving, courses on literacy and “life skills”, and vocational training for trades like sewing and candle-making, in the hope that new businesses and independent livelihoods will grow out of them.

The organisation also forms partnerships with European and North American brands to bring in large-scale foreign demand for the womens’ handicrafts. The luxury hotel brand Andaz, for example, is sourcing the laundry bags needed to service its hundreds of rooms from programme participants in Iraq. “[The] women involved are benefiting from this partnership,” says Shakir, “[they] are learning more on how to develop their products to match international standards.”

Lastly, the programme provides a safe space in country that can be, in many ways, a frightening and unfriendly place. Says Shakir of the Women For Women International centres in Iraq: “The women feel that this is a safe place, that [they] can say anything, [they] can have a voice, [they] can talk about [their lives]. They support each other.”

For Sirur, things are starting to look better. She joined the Women for Women International programme and is now saving her sponsorship money to start up her own small business. With her savings and new skills, she’ll set up a beauty parlour with her sister in her family home.

Though change is slow due to institutional and cultural challenges, women’s groups in Iraq are seeing more and more women like Sirur take charge of their lives, support their families on their own, and even insist that their own girls get an education. As Shakir explains, “these kinds of changes keep us ongoing.”

Learn more about sponsoring a woman through Women for Women International here.

articipants receive a small stipend for saving, courses on literacy and “life skills”, and vocational training for trades like sewing and candle-making, in the hope that new businesses and independent livelihoods will grow out of them.

Women for Women’s participants receive a small stipend for saving, life skills and literacy courses, and basic vocational training