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U.S.-Iraq Women's Network Prepares for Iraqi Elections

Washington -- With Iraqi national elections expected in January 2005, the U.S.-Iraq Women's Network is seeking to encourage Iraqi women to participate in their country's political life and define their role in a democratic Iraq.

In an April 26 briefing to inform representatives of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) about the project opportunities available under the Iraqi Women's Democracy Initiative, members and associates of the Women's Network spoke of the progress that has been made and the challenges that lie ahead.

Ellen Sauerbrey, U.S. Representative to the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women, told the audience that "our priority now is not the temporary transition but it is ensuring that we have elections that will form an Iraqi government that has unquestioned legitimacy in the eyes of the people of Iraq."

"And it's also ensuring that women have an equal opportunity to participate fully in the election process as candidates, not to be resisted or intimidated when they seek political office," she added.

Several speakers, including representatives from the State Department, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), spoke of the progress that has been made in preparing women to assume a more active role in the political process and outlined numerous initiatives that are currently in place.

The CPA's Joanne Dickow, who began working with Iraqi women in April 2003, recalled the timid response she received from those women in the early days after the fall of Saddam Hussein's Ba'athist regime.

"There was this incredible sense by the Iraqi women of ‘Oh my goodness, what do you mean we are going to get involved in politics?'" she said. "And there was this sense of ‘Oh, these are doctors, lawyers and engineers.'"

Dickow explained that women largely had been excluded from the political process. "Unless you were a relatively rare chemical and germ warfare specialist, your options in Iraq were relatively limited," she said.

"Getting them to understand that this was their time was probably the hardest job of all at the beginning," said Dickow.

She observed, however, that the Iraqi Governing Council's (IGC) adoption of Resolution 137 served to galvanize the Iraqi women, and their successful campaign against it gave them a sense of what they could achieve.

Resolution 137 transferred family law matters from civil administration to religious Sharia law in December 2003 but, under intense pressure and lobbying from women's rights groups, the council subsequently repealed the resolution.

"It ended up being the best thing that could have ever happened to the cause of women in Iraq," Dickow said. "When you look at the way the Iraqi women mobilized, they have really grasped onto the concept of representative democracy and grassroots politics better than anyone else inside the country. They got together. They signed petitions. They peacefully demonstrated. They demanded time with the Iraqi Governing Council and they got it. And they spoke their mind. And they succeeded in repealing resolution 137."

"That is an extraordinarily tremendous achievement," she said.

USAID representative Allyson Stroschein echoed Dickow's observations, saying, "There's been an amazing transformation among women in Iraq and their confidence level in themselves to get involved and to change the situation that they're in."

Stroschein spoke of a women's group in Tikrit that began meeting in secret for fear of a lack of community support, but said that the group is now quite active, having formed an NGO and currently seeking funding for a women's center and skills training projects.

Dickow said that the greatest need now is in training. "We don't need to convince them any more of how this is their time. They know it. They just need the tools to get there," she said.

The speakers mentioned initiatives that are already under way, including the development of women's centers and women's caucuses, as well as training in advocacy, campaigning and journalism skills.

Sauerbrey noted, however, that there is more work to be done as elections in post-conflict situations are subject to destabilizing forces.

She said that the commitment to democracy in such situations is often fragile with some political players intent on subverting the process, while voters may harbor doubts about the value of the elections.

Sauerbrey also noted the potential for intimidation, fraud and boycotts, as well as outright refusals on the part of some players to accept the results at the ballot box.

In addition, she pointed out the difficulty of ensuring enfranchisement in the case of displaced populations and the problem of training populations with high illiteracy rates.

Nevertheless, Sauerbrey spoke of a recent meeting with a delegation of Iraqi women at the United Nations and said, "What I came away with was the excitement, the recognition of the future that is there for the taking and the commitment that I heard from these women that they are going to build a true democracy in Iraq."

The U.S.-Iraq Women's Network is helping to administer the Iraqi Women's Democracy Initiative, announced by Secretary of State Colin Powell on March 8. This initiative allocates $10 million to projects aimed at strengthening the democratic skills and practices of Iraqi 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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