The war and the consequent void of security in Iraq have left a lasting impact on Iraqi society. A recent survey conducted by the Ministry of Planning and Development about women and children, specifically widows and orphans, reflected this reality.
According to the survey, “The number of orphans aged 17 at most and registered at the Ministry of Planning and Development reached 600,000, while the number of widows reached 850,000.” Despite the large number of widows and orphans, the survey did not include Ninevah and Anbar provinces, which witnessed a violent war when the Iraqi security forces attempted to regain control after the Islamic State (IS) took over large parts of the provinces in the past two years.
Abed al-Zahra al-Hindawi, the spokesman for the Ministry of Planning and Development, told Al-Monitor, “The number of widows and orphans is expected to increase if another survey is conducted to include these two provinces.” In any case, the survey, which was conducted by the Central Statistical Organization that is affiliated with the Ministry of Planning and Development in coordination with the World Bank, did not reveal the reasons why families lost parents or husbands.
It also did not reveal other details that are considered sensitive in the conservative Iraqi culture. For example, the survey overlooks the number of widowed women who remarried after the death of their first husbands and the adoption of orphans by Iraqi foster families. Hindawi said, “Iraq is a conservative society and might resent such questions and avoid answering them.”
Moreover, widows and orphans are bound by traditions and norms that forbid them from living a normal life. Shahed became a widow when her husband died in a blast in New Baghdad in 2009. She and her husband had a baby boy. Her in-laws forced her and her son to live with them. But after Shahed decided to get married again, her in-laws offered her two choices: either forget about getting married or leave her son for them to raise. She opted for marriage.
Shahed, who preferred not to give her last name, told Al-Monitor, “I was 24 when my husband died, and my in-laws wanted me to spend my life raising my son without mingling with society or getting married again. Iraqis tend to imprison widows and increase their grief,” she said. As Shahed’s late husband was not a government employee, she does not get a pension from the government that is granted to state employees who fall prey to blasts or die naturally.
Consequently, her in-laws are providing for her son as she lives a new life with her second husband. “There are a lot of women who have been through the same but who decided to spend their lives in their in-laws’ prison while raising their children,” Shahed said. Rehab al-Abboudeh, a member of the Child and Family Committee in the Iraqi parliament, told Al-Monitor, “These orphans and widows include large numbers of victims who fell prey to the fighting taking place now against [IS].”
Abboudeh said the figures provided by the Ministry of Planning are “shocking.” “Yet the Iraqi government has not taken any action to develop a true strategic plan to help the widows and orphans,” she added with a sad tone. Abboudeh said the lack of attention to widows and orphans “reveals the Iraqi government’s poor performance at this level,” and stressed, “We will discuss the ministry’s statistics in a parliamentary meeting and come up with recommendations or legislation that could positively affect these two categories.”
However, Abboudeh said, “The government's indifference to orphans and widows may be due to the deteriorating economic situation or its preoccupation with the war against terrorism.” The government does not seem interested in this large category, let alone its future, and it only gives widows registered with the Social Protection Department of the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs a stipend of no more than $100 per month.
This low amount, along with the bureaucracy in dealing with government institutions, led a lot of widows to refrain from registering themselves in this department. Orphans and widows account for a big part of Iraqi society, and the government ought to pay attention to them and develop strategic plans aimed at enabling women to work and live normally away from the pressures of worn social norms and traditions.
Also, orphans should be urged to complete their studies and granted a good life that could make up for the loss they suffered.
Omar al-Jaffal is an Iraqi writer and poet. He is an editor of Bayt and Nathr, two intellectual magazines that are published in Iraq.