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Iraqi Minister Nesreen Berwari Seeks Greater Role for Women in Iraq

Iraqi Minister of Municipalities and Public Works Nesreen Berwari believes that Iraqi women need a greater role in defining the future of Iraq politically, socially and economically.

But while she welcomes the support of international organizations and women's rights groups in helping Iraqi women to achieve their goals of participation, she does not believe that it is adequate for Iraqi women to depend on the assistance of others.

"We as people and especially as women -- I think it is more sustainable that we depend on ourselves in trying to push our aspirations and demands clearly," she said during a February 26 presentation at Washington's Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars.

As the top Iraqi official in charge of water treatment, waste management, environmental sanitation and municipal facilities, Berwari is one of the most important figures in the Iraqi civil administration.

Her ministry has also received some of the greatest funding in the reconstruction efforts, given its central role in providing basic services to the population.

She noted that, "For the first time in Iraq's history, it is the education, water and health sectors that are getting the highest allocation in the Iraqi budget."

She also mentioned that, "Since April 2003 the U.S. government has made available more than $4 billion to address the problem [of unsafe drinking water]."

According to Berwari, at least 50 percent of the Iraqi population still does not have access to reliable, clean, safe water supplies.

Despite her prominence as a public official, however, she voiced her concern that Iraqi women as a whole still do not have adequate opportunities to participate in public life and pointed to the Iraqi Governing Council's Resolution 137 as an example of what may lie ahead if women do not stand up for their rights.

Resolution 137 would have abolished Iraq's civilly administered personal status law in favor of clerically administered Shari'a law. Many women's rights groups maintain that this would leave women vulnerable to arbitrary legal decisions based on varying readings of the religious law and deprive them of the right to appeal to civil adjudication in important matters of marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance.

"Concerned citizens have made substantial progress initiating and developing cohesiveness and in organizing to better defend their rights and protect interests they deem vital to their future," she said. "This is particularly true of rights and interests pertaining to women."

She went on to say, "More than 80 women's non-governmental organizations have been organized and increasingly coordinated to protect the rights of women and promote their interests. Numerous group activities have been undertaken and more are being planned."

Nevertheless, she believes that protective guarantees need to be built into the fundamental institutional texts that are currently taking form in order to ensure that the country does not backtrack.

She said, "For Iraq to move forward faster it is essential for women to play stronger contributing roles. Women need to have opportunities to more actively participate in decision-making. In order for this to occur, an enabling environment to promote women's participation needs to be enshrined within the fundamental law of administration."

Specifically, she supported the adoption of quotas that would guarantee women at least 40 percent representation in public administration and legislative bodies. The final proposed text of the interim constitution, which emerged from negotiations in the early hours of March 1, embraces more modest quotas of 25 percent representation for women in the interim assembly.

In response to a question about the absence of women on the committee drafting the interim administrative law, Berwari said, "in all fairness the chairman of the committee and in addition some of the members support pro-women issues."

She stated, "As Iraq moves forward, taking its rightful place among the family of nations, we should do so on the basis of recognition, affirmation and adherence to international human rights conventions as they pertain to women."

By David Shelby Washington File Staff Writer
(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:


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