On International Women's Day, Do Something Good for Iraqi Women

by Medea Benjamin

Iraqi and US women have a lot in common. Both list safety as a top concern, and are worried about the increasing violence and militarization of their societies. Both see jobs and health care as top priorities, and feel uncertain about their economic security. And both are grossly underrepresented in the halls of power. But all these issues-security, economic well-being and government representation-are much more stark for Iraqis than for their US counterparts. That's why, on International Women's Day, it's good to take a moment to do something positive for Iraqi women. Here are a few ideas:

Ask your congressperson where the money went: Iraqi women are distraught over the devastation of their health care system, once the jewel of the Middle East. According to Eman Asim, the Ministry of Health official who oversees the country's 185 public hospitals, "Even at the height of sanctions, when things were miserable, it wasn't as bad as this." Supply rooms lack basic antibiotics. Children in the pediatric hospitals are dying due to shortages of such modest equipment as catheters, IVs and oxygen cylinders. According to the New York Times, 80 percent of patients leave with infections they did not have when they arrived. Bechtel, the multibillion dollar San Francisco-based company, has received massive government contracts to refurbish the hospitals. Iraqi women are asking where this money has gone? So should we. Call your congressperson at 202-224-3121.

Support a women's shelter: The chaos that ensued after the war has led to an unprecedented spike in rapes, kidnappings and trafficking in women. Rape victims may then face an even worse tragedy: being killed by male relatives for bringing "shame to the family". The Organization for Women's Freedom in Iraq has begun a campaign to end the rape, abduction and killing of women. They educate women about their rights, call for punishment of those who commit "honor killings", and pressure the US authorities to provide greater security for women. They have also set up a shelter in Baghdad where women who seek a safe place can find refuge, and plan to set up similar shelters in other parts of the country. Send donations through http://www.equalityiniraq.com.

Help women earn an income: As a result of the past three wars, some 250,000 Iraqi women are widows desperately trying to support their families. After the US invasion, the jobless rate soared to over 60%, as thousands of Iraqi businesses went bankrupt due to the lack of security, shortages of electricity, and foreign competition. Two-thirds of salaried Iraqi women were public employees, and many lost their jobs when government ministries closed. Women for Women International has set up centers to provide vocational skills and training to help poor, marginalized Iraqi women earn an income. Contact http://www.womenforwomen.org.

Promote women's empowerment: The US occupying authorities have failed to foster significant women's participation in the political process. While Iraqi women are 60% of the population, women are grossly underrepresented in the current interim government. There are only 3 women out of 25 on the Interim Governing Council; no women governors have been appointed in any of the 18 provinces, and there is only 1 woman minister out of  25 government ministries. For the new government that is scheduled to take power on June 30, women have asked for a 40% quota in public administration, legislative bodies and the judiciary, but so far, this request has been rejected. Join the women's group CodePink in a petition to the UN, US and Iraqi authorities to ensure that women have significant participation in Iraq's new government. See http://www.codepinkalert.org.

Learn more and take action: The Occupation Watch Center, based in Baghdad, has a website with up-to-date reports on everything from the status of women to cultural and environmental issues. On the site, you can sign up for the weekly email bulletins and take recommended actions such as signing a petition urging US authorities in Iraq to respect the rights of Iraqi workers to organize independent unions. See http://www.occupationwatch.org.

With over 100,000 US troops in Iraq, the fate of U.S. and Iraqi women are intertwined. Helping Iraqi women to have a voice in their future makes our own future more secure.

Medea Benjamin, co-founder of the human rights group Global Exchange and the women's peace group CodePink, recently returned from Iraq.