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Iraq's women: worth the risk

Iraq, July 27, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Alisha Rodriguez/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Over 18,000 Iraqi women are currently enrolled in our literacy programs. Photo: Alisha Rodriguez/Mercy Corps

Iraq's contentious election has tied its political system in knots. But this isn't stopping Mercy Corps from pursuing one of its main objectives there: making women's voices heard. It's part of our effort to build skills for traditionally disenfranchised groups, as Mercy Corps' Sahar Alnouri said recently at a public event at Mercy Corps' Action Center in Portland.

Alnouri, who's worked in Iraq since early last year, said the election has put everyone on edge. In 2005, post-election sectarian violence displaced millions of Iraqis and left the country in a very sensitive state. Explosions are still common, and people wonder if the fighting will break out again.

The insecurity is the hardest part about working in Iraq, Alnouri said. "You have to be in a constant state of preparedness, even if nothing happens." It's also hard to gather information because travel is dangerous. But these problems don't deter Mercy Corps from helping those who suffer the most from the insecurity: women and girls.

For starters, instability keeps girls from attending school. Parents often shield their daughters from potential danger by keeping them at home. Alnouri helps coordinate Mercy Corps' women's literacy program, which fills an important need in a country where the illiteracy rate is about 30 percent higher for women than it is for men. So far we've helped about 26,000 women how to read and write, as well as lessons in democracy and governance, human and women’s rights, and other key social issues.

But female literacy is only the first step.

The Iraqi constitution is fairly liberal on women's rights, but reality doesn't always match the rhetoric. And with the fledgling Iraqi police force tied up with security matters, women's rights aren't top priority. Alnouri said Mercy Corps programs teach women about their rights, about voting and about their role in a democratic society. As a result, women are becoming more confident -- and more politically aware.

For example, 30 percent of the candidates in the most recent election were women, and their newfound knowledge empowers them to speak out for political change. Alnouri related one story that demonstrates the new political consciousness. In the midst of recent negotiations to form a new government, one of her female colleagues remarked, “We need training for our politicians on how to use the democratic system.”

Though the results of the election are still in dispute, our commitment to Iraq's women is certain. We're helping them develop the tools they need to find their own voices, despite the security risks.