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Constitution Marks New Start for Iraqi Women, Minister Says

The signing of an Iraqi interim constitution March 8 marks the beginning of a new role for women in the country, according to the only woman member of Iraq's cabinet.

Nasreen Barwari, speaking the same day at a panel discussion, titled "The Role of Women In The Emerging Government and Society of Iraq," honoring International Women's Day in Washington, said the constitution guarantees a "more inclusive system" for women. Iraqi women's task now is to network with each other in order to build strength needed to achieve and sustain equality in national and local decision-making, she said.

Women already have influenced decisions related to the Iraqi Governing Council's Resolution 137, which would have moved family and personal law matters from civil administration to clerical administration under Sharia law, Barwari said. This resolution was retracted under tremendous pressure from women's groups.

The retraction was "a great achievement for Iraqi society," she said.

Women also pressed for inclusion in the constitution of a provision calling for a target of 25 percent representation for women in a forthcoming Transitional National Assembly.

The panelists, Robin Raphel, coordinator for Iraq reconstruction, U.S. Department of State, the current Minister for Municipalities and Public Works for Iraq Nasreen Barwari, Anita Sharma, director of the Woodrow Wilson Center's Conflict Prevention Project, Judith Kipper, director of Middle East Forum for the Council on Foreign Relations, Johanna Mendelson-Forman, senior program officer for Peace, Security & Human Rights of the United Nations Foundation, and journalist Asla Aydintasbas of Sabah Newspaper discussed new decision-making positions for Iraqi women who represent 55 percent of the population in the liberated Iraq.

Since the agreement in November between Iraq's Governing Council (IGC) and the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) of a plan to transition the governing of Iraq to Iraqis, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have been holding "discussion groups" with women around the country to generate interest in the democratic process and inform women of the importance of registering to vote, the minister for municipalities and public works said. Barwari explained that 80 women's groups currently exist in Baghdad and offer a new method of dialogue and empowerment for Iraqi women. Although the Iraqi constitution entitled full rights to women in 1970, more than 4,000 women have been murdered in honor killings under the rule of Saddam Hussein.

According to Raphel, after the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003, Iraqi women were the first demonstrators, seeking equal rights, witnessed by the CPA, which has assisted Iraqi women in reinstating grassroots efforts and enabling free discussions about their participation in a representative self-government. Recounting women's previous progress in being involved in their country's development, Raphel said that prior to the Baathist regime, Iraqi women "were at the vanguard" of women in Islam. She noted that the first women's organization in Iraq was formed in 1924.

Raphel attended the first Baghdad Iraq women's conference, sponsored by the CPA. The CPA, coordinating humanitarian assistance and reconstructing damaged infrastructure in post-Saddam Iraq, allocated $6.5 million to women's groups for business and professional development. For example, the Mansour Women's Center, the first of nine women's centers to open in Baghdad, was made possible through a grant from the CPA, the U.S. Agency for International Development and implemented by Women for Women International.

In outreach to Iraqi women, the United States has been helping to organize women's conferences throughout the country with more being planned, said Raphel at the Women's Day event. The United States also is sponsoring training programs for women, including women journalists and women in security positions, facilitating visits to the United States by women leaders and scholars, and allocating grants to women's NGOs and business-support organizations. Barwari said NGOs, working with international support, also are hoping to get women interested in becoming candidates for national and local government positions.

"Iraqi women are very capable of serving in decision-making positions," Barwari said. "They know they must have a role."

The United States also has allocated $500 million in 2004 for civil society development projects in Iraq. Over 100 Iraqi women have been trained as police officers in order to address the concern of security. It is a priority to provide a secure environment for women to access the voting polls in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to Sharma, only 2 percent of the female population is registered to participate in the election process in Afghanistan because human security remains a major issue.

Referencing a recently discovered Iraqi mass grave of 15,000 casualties, a legacy of the Saddam Hussein regime, Aydintasbas, a regular contributor to CNN and The Wall Street Journal, remarked, "When you don't have human rights, you don't have women's rights."

Addressing women's rights as human rights, Secretary of State Colin Powell announced on March 9 the $10 million Women's Democracy Initiative for Iraq that will provide training in leadership skills and organizing political activities and other civil actions. In addition, the U.S.-Iraq Women's Network, modeled after the pioneering work of the U.S.-Afghan Women's Council, will create public-private partnerships, empowering Iraqi women in political and economic arenas. Kipper remarked on these historic opportunities, "Iraqi women in this transition are going to be pioneers not only in their country, but in the region."

Sharma, citing proposals to the Iraqi Governing Council that seek to abolish laws that impede the employment of women and impose traveling regulations on women, said, "It would be a pity if we liberated Iraq, only to imprison its women."

Iraqi women's involvement in decisions regarding the future of their country will be an important tool for the country in "moving beyond war to stability," said Johanna Mendelson-Forman, senior program officer at the United Nations Foundation, speaking at the same event. Mendelson-Forman identified three current deficits in Iraq: freedom, women's empowerment, and the lack of new knowledge creation. She emphasized that the U.N. Development Fund for Women recently opened an office in Iraq to better serve Iraqi women, who have a 52 percent illiteracy rate. Mendelson-Forman remarked that the failure to expand education "will forever condemn the political process in Iraq."

"Study after study has taught us that there is no tool for development more effective than the education of girls and the empowerment of women," U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said. "When women are fully involved, the benefits can be seen immediately: families are healthier; they are better fed; their income, savings and reinvestment go up. And what is true of families is true of communities and, eventually, whole countries."

The sponsor of the panel discussion, titled "The Role of Women In The Emerging Government and Society of Iraq," included The United Nations Information Centre and the following co-sponsors; the United Nations Foundation, United Nations Development Program, the United Nations Population Fund, USA for UNHCR, Vital Voices, World Food Programme, Women Waging Peace, International Labor Organization, International Fund for Agriculture Development, General Federation of Women's Clubs, Women's Foreign Policy Group, United Nations Association (UNA-NCA), League of Women Voters, U.S. Committee for UNIFEM, the Woodrow Wilson International Center on Conflict Prevention, and Amnesty International USA.

By Darlisa Y. Crawford and Kathryn McConnell
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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